Thursday 18 February 2010

Beer and Wine

Pete and Dave both discussed this last week and I thought I’d add my piece to this interesting and complicated issue.

First of all, never tell anyone that beer is the new wine. Those old-school beer chaps don’t like it and jump right down your throat, aghast at the mere thought. But beer and wine, whatever you say, can be comparable and through a certain necessity, I think, need to be comparable.

In this I am not addressing John Smith down the pub supping his bitter. To him, beer is beer and nothing more. I’m also not addressing Jonty Smith, swirling and sniffing his vintage plonk. To him, beer is common man’s liquid bread. This is pitched down the middle at the discerning others. The way I see it, if you want to talk about beer then you need to use a certain type of language and that language has already been established: wine speak. Sure, we can ‘bloke’ it up, but we are essentially using the same technique to talk about what a beer tastes like and why it tastes that way. To most it probably doesn’t matter how it tastes or why it’s like that, but it does to me and I’m hoping, as you are reading this, that the way the beer in your glass actually tastes is important to you (whether you wish to describe it or not). To say that the aroma is fruity or the body is full or the finish is dry is to use wine speak. It’s something which beer has, like it or not, inherited.

A movie is a movie, some are better than others, some people intellectualise them, others watch them as pure release. I have a degree in ‘watching films’ so I often look a little deeper into them. To use Woolpack Dave’s examples, I like books too, and certain types of music, but I don’t care for cars or electronics. Beer is not the new wine. New wine is the new wine, if you get what I mean. Beer is beer - it always has been and always will be - but there is an interested section of drinkers who want to talk about it in a different way to others and just because they use a wine-established language does not mean that the two drinks are mutually exclusive.

Many argue that beer doesn’t want to be intellectualised, but why not? Why not add an element of understanding, a degree of interaction with the beer? The majority, as Pete Brown points out, don’t care beyond whether it’s red or white, lager or bitter, but sometimes a little nudge of information can go a long way. Did you know that grape only grows in Northern Italy? Did you know this beer is made using water drawn from an ancient well? Did you know those hops are a new variety? I’m all for people having more of an understanding about what they are putting in their mouths because it naturally creates a more discerning mentality.

Take food. If you understand it, how it works, how to cook things and how ingredients taste then there is a natural progression in what the eater chooses and that dish made with exotic ingredients suddenly becomes accessible. If you know a little about wine then you can also attempt to choose something to compliment the food. And how many books discussing beer and food compare a full-bodied red wine to a stout, a pale ale to a chardonnay, or discuss how hops in beer are equivalent to acidity in wine? This is because wine and food pairing is an established and appreciated practice. It’s not raising beer to a different level, it’s merely levelling it with wine on a flat playing surface: the dinner table.

Why can’t we look at beer in the same way as wine? Does it really matter if beer is held in greater esteem, if people talk about it like they talk about wine? To be honest, if someone wants to care about beer then they will, if they don’t then they will order their pint blissful in their ignorance in the same way that someone will order a glass of white because they are eating chicken and want some wine – neither are right or wrong, it’s the consumer’s choice. Ultimately it’s about the audience you are trying to reach. I can talk about beer in comparison to wine here because someone who wants to know more about beer is willing to search it out on the internet and if my language is familiar to them then hopefully I can be successful in championing beer.

Beer is changing. For most progressive breweries it’s no longer just four house ales and four seasonals. Brewers are doing more and expanding into different markets: look at corked bottles, 750ml bottles, bottle labels, the use of barrel aging, fruit, spices, different brewing techniques and increased levels of alcohol. Drinkers are changing too. It’s not the same as wine but it’s not a million miles away.

A good example of this is Sam Calagione and Marnie Old’s He Said Beer, She Said Wine book - the image at the top. It takes a beer guy and a wine girl, a number of different foods, and they each choose a beer or wine each to go with it. The book not only taught me more about beer but it also taught me more about wine.


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  2. Sounds like you've been sitting in on one of my rants! : )

    The language of beer is as antiquated as the drink itself - and whilst we like to call the physical product itself rich in history, we may as well be using the word thou and that funny s/f thing as far as most of the UK brewing industry is concerned because it has failed dismally at providing an up-to-date lexicon for the modern beer lover.

    Pete's guests knowing that they like red or white is a step forward from 50% of the population never having tried real ale! Let alone understanding the differences between lager and ale-style beers.

    I never have, and never will, advocate that we need to dumb down beer but I do think we also need to accept that people aren't just going to drink great beer just because we know it's great! We need to find better ways of persuading the wider public that it's great too.

  3. are you saying that the beer and wine worlds should use the same terms in the descriptives - weight, acidity, tannins?

    Are they compatable?

    I may be odd - hell you know that you've met me - but I like both wine and beer; can/should I use the same method of describing beer as I do beer even if I don't have a clue on the hop types etc?

  4. Melissa, tha s/f thing is brilliant though. There is nothing like reading old texts and permantely having to double take and think surely to God they know what the letters are!

    I think Mark is spot on in terms of the need for levelling the playing field and that talking about beer in a "wine style" language is correct. But you are right that beer language needs to be communicated far better, at least certainly in the UK.

    Problem is, haven't we been stuck here at this point for rather a long time. Working in wine and spirit education it puzzles and frustrates me that Tequila can go from nasty-horror-drink to cool-must-have in the blink of an eye but that beer seems to suffer from the Riesling syndrome; the revolution is always round the next corner.

  5. Melissa and Nicholas, I agree we need a better way of communicating it but I think we need a vehicle to be able to appropriately communicate it and that vehicle needs to be big enough to fit a lot of people on board. Wine had TV, hopefully beer will have the internet.

    Andrew, I think the same terms can be used, sure, but should not necessarily be adhered to. You can definitely talk about weight, acidity in sour beers or bitterness in hoppy beer, tannin-like texture can come from a barrel-aged beer or hops add a dryness. And you can describe them the same way without knowing hop variety; the flavours you perceive will give the idea of the hop type. I can (attempt) to describe wine and describe how it tastes, feels, smells, etc, without any knowledge of grape, region, etc.

    Nicholas, bring on the revolution!

  6. Mark, you almost hit the nail on the head there by mentioning food. What I think is crucial is not talking about beer and food, or even beer in "wine terms" (whatever that means - I always make the greatest effort never to mention the w-word whenever I write about or talk about beer), but realising that beer is actually a foodstuff.

    People already have the ideas of provenance and quality built into their food vocabulary, or rather, the sort of people that beer lovers, beer writers and beer evangelists should be appealing to have that understanding.

    Randy Mosher's famous quote "if you can cook a lasagne, you can brew beer" has a great resonance here. Beer is manufactured, built from the ground up, with every nuance of it coming from a recipe that the brewer puts together and executes. Everything that you can taste in a beer is a result of that execution.

    It's a shame that there isn't a beer equivalent of the term "foodie"

  7. There is a big difference about how many, if not most, drinkers perceive beer and wine. Wine is seen as a drink, beer as a brand.

    Ask someone what is their favourite wine and they will likely say, for example, Australian Chardonnay or Malbec from Argentina. Ask that same person which is their favourite beer and they will most likely say a brand.

    People associate beer with football teams, funny ads, slogans and the old geezer at the pub, while wine is associated with pretty nice things like vintage, aging, terroir, etc.

    Until "beer language" can effectively transcend the niche it is now and become more or less mainstream like wine's did a couple of decades ago, it will always be seen as a bit more than a generic product.

    The question is, is that really necessary? Is it really important that the average Nigel knows why a Belgian Ale is different than an English Ale, which in turn is different than an American Ale, as long as he is aware they are different?

  8. Zak, but lasagne is difficult to make! Beerie doesn't work, does it?! Food is very important to the whole beer appreciation movement (B.A.M!) as it can be the central go-between from what is known and what is new. And if you can appreciate taste, texture and recipe in solid then that can surely transfer over to a liquid?

    Pivni, I hadn't thought of beer like that before, interesting. And interesting question too... I think they need to know that there is a difference and appreciate it, to know WHY there's a difference is the next step in the appreciation of it, I think. It's enough to see and understand that champagne is different to a chardonnay, or lager is different to a pale ale, but knowing what makes them different is important too, I think. Very interesting idea though and I think there's a whole post in that one!

  9. It’s a free country and people are free to talk about anything they like, in any way they like. That includes over intellectualising beer and even drinking it out of bizarre over sized wine glasses. However the culture of the UK is one where domestic produce (beer) is the common mans drink accessible to all and imported grog (wine) has an air of sophistication and aspiration for no other reason that traditionally it was priced out of the reach of the many. With everyone middle class and wine as cheap as chips, aspirational choices are in the reach of all. Beer will never be aspirational. It goes against the grain of our national fabric. Whilst you are free to over intellectualise beer, I am free to find it funny and ridiculous. A free country is a wonderful thing.

  10. Rubbish, lasagne is dead easy to make.

    Good post Mark, it's a subject that is close to my heart. Perhaps talking about it in terms of wine is a bad idea, and your examples of the two extremes of people that enjoy what they enjoy and that's that is perfect. For the people in the middle, and they are growing in number, the correct language, media and approach is crucial. We should all be interested in that.

  11. mark, check out my chilli blog for a lasagne recipe that you can't mess up - even our lass can make it, you can always leave the chilli out too.

  12. Mellisa I remember your rant at the barley wine thingy, thought you were going to kill Dave Corby.
    Mark good post

  13. Ok, I admit there is fair bit of playing devil's advocate here, but why do we even want to compare beer and wine?

    Beer is the everyman drink, please note that I am not saying working man. It is the drink that transcends class and status. Think about how many people down the pub have had the opportunity to drink vintage champagne, and now thing about the number of toffs who have drunk beer.

    Beer goes beyond class, toffs and peasants alike can enjoy a pint together in the same pub and no-one feels out of place (except maybe the Volvo driving, tweed-wearing, social climbing nouveaux riche - but screw them anyway - see Billy Connolly on YouTube for more).

    Beer and the pub is at the very heart of British culture and perhaps trying to turn beer into wine from a cultural standpoint is is grave mistake because it alienates people from their national drink.

    Communicating beer is not about being flowery and "descriptive" a la Jilly Goolden, but about speaking in everyman terms about the everyman drink, which is one reason I like the Cyclops tasting notes that Everards pioneered.

  14. Beer or Wine...??

    Are they compatable?
    I think,'s an intersting subject for all those who tested real Wine....
    :) Enjoy....