Sunday, 19 September 2010

Back to it, then...

The London Brewers Alliance showcase night was instrumental in giving me back some confidence and renewing my enthusiasm for brewing, which admittedly has been waning.

It's been a fairly difficult few months chez Happy Bat. First there was the phenolic infection. Month after month of beer so rank the first one opened led to tipping them all. Then the nightmare process of learning everything about every beer ever made up by the BJCP committee, which I have constant doubts about and which, between doing it and worrying about not doing it, takes up all of my time. It's got to the point where I'm beginning to wonder what it would be like to have spare weekends, to have a non-sticky kitchen floor, to never have to sanitise another damn bottle. But still.

Although the beer cupboard is a bit more bare than it has been, I am still brewing, regardless of setbacks. I still love experimenting with malt and hops. I still love being a member of LAB, I still love drinking beer. So of course when I heard about the London brewers showcase evening I had to go... And I loved every minute of it.

I had a chat to all the brewers, every one of them totally full of enthusiasm for their beers. I managed to invite myself round to at least a couple of breweries, under my usual terms - to have a look round and do a bit of free labour in exchange for getting in the way. I managed to try all the beers from every brewery in London in quick succession, what an amazing and unprecedented opportunity.

We had loads of interest at the London Amateur brewers' stall, people wondering how we did it, people who always wanted to brew but never got around to it, people who were already home brewers but had never heard of the group, and wanted to join.

And people liked my beer! I was absolutely made up about that. Should I take into account the fact that people were being polite about our beer – after all, we're the London Amateur Brewers, and we are standing right in front of them?

Hell no! I love my beer. That's why I make it like that. We know we make great beer.

We have a big advantage over the pro brewers in the hall, admittedly – because we only make a few pints at a time. It's economies of scale reversed. We can chuck in dry hops by the whole pack, and the financial hit is barely worth a couple of pints. We can experiment, and if it goes wrong, it's not the end of the world to lose a batch. (Yeah - I should know.)

So people's enthusiasm became my enthusiasm, became amplified, drunken enthusiasm. and I was sent home raring to get another batch on. It's doing well already...


News that the London Amateur Brewers Club are running the first ever European BJCP exam has come to light among the beer world in the last few weeks, and appears to have elicited a very negative response in certain quarters – and some have taken a very dim view indeed. Why is it so disliked?

Partly the rigid style parameters which are set out. The UK (National Guild of Wine and Beer Judges) equivalent of the styles guide doesn't have anything at all like that. Is it also at least partly the fact that it is so very unflattering about British beer? I was certainly put off.

English best bitter, along with all the other English bitters, is described as having no hop aroma or flavour, a mere hint of malt aroma or flavour if you are lucky. Mmm, bland.

Then again, in all fairness, after having tried all the very hoppy beers that are currently in favour, the Thornbridge Jaipur, Darkstar APA, Brewdog Hardcore, I find a pint of Bombardier, Pride, Abbot or Directors very bland indeed, it's true. I'm sure I didn't think that five years ago; maybe my tastes have changed as I've tried more styles of beer and new beers have been made.

The other major complaint with the BJCP is that the style parameters are completely incorrect. Particularly the British styles. This is true. There is no such thing as a 'Robust Porter'. So where did this subcategory come from? The Scottish beers were a bit of a surprise too. Do they exist? Apparently not. So why are they there? Did someone just take all the beers they could find and invent categories around them one day?

It has been said that beer styles are simply an agreement between a brewer and a judge. The BJCP knows that they are flawed, some styles more so than others.

I've been told that that the BJCP asked the London Amateur Brewers to review the British styles, and LAB asked the Scottish Craft Brewers to review the Scottish styles back in 2008, but apparently no-one has had the time. So for the time being they will be staying as they are, but they are by no means set in stone, and certainly aren't setting up stall as an infallible authority.

So bearing all this in mind, I am still studying the BJCP because I want to improve my knowledge of beer. Because there is a great deal more involved in it than the styles, which will involve me gaining a more thorough knowledge of brewing chemistry and techniques than I had gained previously. Because people in the group are doing it, and therefore the opportunity to do it as a group exists. Because not all of the categories are 'wrong', and learning the difference between different types of lager, different stouts, the way that different witbiers, saisons, or lambics taste, is a lot easier done this way, with everything set out to be tasted against a fairly comprehensive list of descriptive parameters on a tasting score sheet. – it's useful. It helps.

I haven't yet formed an opinion as to whether this changing and flawed set of style parameters is good or bad. Once I've sat the exam in January, I might well then make a study of whatever is the British equivalent, if such a thing exists. Or more likely I'll forget them altogether and go with herding all beers in the world under a small set of very broad style umberellas, because anything else is too fiddly and too much mucking about. But I think I prefer to have gained the knowledge in order to be able to make the informed decision to discard it.