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Wine snobbery ... and brewers who won't learn or fight back

This article recently appeared in the British magazine Brewers' Guardian. It was intended to be provocative, and seems to have succeeded.

We are in a restaurant: A group of friends. "Give the wine-list to Michael. Let him decide. He's the expert on wine". If I mutter under my breath, "beer," I risk an awkward silence.

In some parts of the U.S., it might just be possible to have beer in a restaurant of some gastronomic ambition.

In some parts of the U.S., it might just be possible to have beer in a restaurant of some gastronomic ambition. Why? One reason is that (contrary to popular wisdom) in the major cities of the U.S., a far wider range of beer-styles can be found than in Europe, and it is therefore easier to match brew and dish: whether it is a truly hoppy IPA as an aperitif, a Lambic with the carbonade or a Double Bock with the dessert.

Never mind gastronomically serious restaurants. Most Americans consider themselves middle-class. A great deal of dining is in medium-priced restaurants, offering ethnic dishes: for example, Mexican, Italian or Thai, or eclectic derivations from such kitchens.

Wine might best accompany classic Italian dishes, but pizza is almost always accompanied by beer. What about Mexican, Thai...Indian? A country with an expanding, new, middle class and a growing habit of ethnic eating: remind you of anywhere closer to home? How about a country where the menfolk used to go to the boozer after work and drink pints until closing time; where they now meet their girlfriends in the gastropub and choose between lager, ale, stout and a chalkboard of Chardonnays and Cabernets.

Most of the beers in today's extraordinarily diverse American selection are derived from European styles. It is a shame that, having created these styles, we Europeans do not nurture them and persuade restaurateurs to offer them.

Another reason why in the U.S. I can occasionally find a suitable beer to accompany my dinner is that the business ethic there accommodates the possibility of becoming profitable by pleasing the consumer.

Too often in Europe, the owners of businesses do what suits them, especially if it is profitable, and to the hell with what the consumer wants. It was summed up for me the other day by the patron of a restaurant currently enjoying great esteem: "Why should I offer beer when I can only make tenpence a bottle on it?" Perhaps he would put a few beers on his list if they were more expensive.

I would resent giving him the pleasure, but think that some beers should cost more. That is not a popular view, and might seem especially heretical when expressed by someone such as myself, who writes for consumers. Fact is, I'm tired of a recurring disappointment: I visit a brewery in order to learn more about its highly distinctive speciality, and am told the product is to be dropped. I ask why. "We don't make any money on it." I suggest they charge more for it. "Then we would sell less," they snivel.

Fine wines represent a fraction of the market, but their reputation elevates the whole category.

Please repeat after me: Wine is more expensive than beer; wine is more profitable than beer. Wine is held in high regard, while beer is taken for granted, or even dismissed. The wines that attract the highest prices, and the most respect, differ in character from one vintage to the next, even one bottle to the next; most beers aim for consistency; some beers are consistently boring. Fine wines represent a fraction of the market, but their reputation elevates the whole category.

Finally: Wine is never blamed for fatalities on the road, domestic violence, or poverty. All alcohol-related social problems are reportedly caused by beer. Especially, beer impoverishes the working-class. Beer's evil powers can be moderated by high taxes, but the world would be a much better places if the advertising of beer, and subsequently its sale, were banned. These views are held by a surprising number of people with influence or power in bodies like the European Union

If it were more wine-like, would beer achieve the respect it deserves, be more widely consumed, enjoy a more secure social position? That raises another question: how different are the world's two great fermented drinks? Both are at least as old as civilisation, and archaeological evidence has fruit and grain often used in the same drink, as in Belgium today.

Grapes are crushed; grain requires malting and mashing. Wine is made only from its fermentable material; beer also requires water and hops, both of which add to its complexity of character. Wines gain complexity from wood; a handful of beers do, too, mainly in Belgium, but most don't. Overall, it could be argued that wine is the less sophisticated of the two drinks. I make this point when I give seminars. It wins a quick laugh, but perhaps also gets the audience thinking.

Wine-like beers? A bouquet as flowery as wine? Flavours as complex? Champagne bottle? Flute? Some beers, mainly in Belgium, already fit the description, and are presented in that way. Yes, a few wine-like brews would help beer as a whole.

"Fine wines" represent only a small proportion of the grapey stuff. The "fine wines" of the beer world will always be few, but we could do with rather more than we have at the moment.

Given that the country most blessed with "fine beers" is Belgium, what about the restaurant scene there? I know Michelin-starred chefs who use beer in the kitchen, and offer it on their wine-lists, but in a small way. If you fancy serious food with beer to match, Belgium also has a scatter of restaurants offering cuisine à la bière. Sorry to sound obsessed with food, but these days a lot of people are. It is those middle classes again. People in employment have more disposable income than ever. Eating out, and cooking at home, are so popular that people hardly have time to watch television. When they do, the screen is full of the same.

Another scenario: "Michael, do you drink wine? The list here features an especially good vintage of Château Splendide...or do you only drink beer?" (He tries not look anxious, but my host cannot order the whole bottle of Splendide for himself if I insist on a glass of Trappist de Rabelais. He might even be embarrassed to be with someone drinking beer in a fancy restaurant.

Of course I drink wine. How could I not?

Of course I drink wine. How could I not? Anyone who enjoys aromas and flavours must find some enjoyment in both of the world's two great fermented drinks. That is Jackson's Law of the Properly Polygamous Palate. Wine and beer should be choices; it is social stereotyping that denies such freedoms.

"I only drink wine," smirks the blonde bimbo on the morning TV show. She is interviewing me on morning television in High Krausen, Minnesota, with her co-presenter, a man in a suit. He is old enough to have some gravitas, but sufficiently vigorous and handsome to have been a minor movie star had things gone his way. He does politics, and general guy stuff. Turns out he likes Anchor Steam, Samuel Smith's Nut Brown and Chimay.

I meet this same couple on morning television next day in Toronto, a week later in Tokyo. They must be flying ahead of me. In every city the routine is the same. The Bimbo explains that she doesn't like beer. I hit her with Jackson's Law. She looks puzzled (she is a Bimbo, after all).

"Which beers don't you like?" I ask. "I don't like any of them. I have tried them all". At a conservative reckoning, there are, worldwide, around 50 styles of beer, manifested in about 30,000 products, from about 5,000 breweries. For a woman who doesn't like beer, she has been very diligent.

The grape deserves respect. In my considerable experience, people who truly appreciate fine wine tend also to enjoy a good beer. As is often the case, the snobs buy image rather than substance. Wine has not always enjoyed a superior image, That it does now is not news, though many brewers too readily accept the inferior status suffered by beer.

When I am lunched by a gentleman-brewer, I am reminded of my youth. The comfortably off seemed to be born knowing about wine. They were the only people who could afford it. My host is in that mould. Perhaps he also spent years buying wine for his tied pubs. He orders the Château Splendide. Very good year, too. I really enjoy it, but my host is no longer typical of wine-drinkers. Today's new middle-class wine drinker was not born to this enthusiasm. It was introduced to him. Nor did he grow up with an innate knowledge of when to drink beer and when to order wine. Across the room, I see him, twice over. Two younger executive types are trying to impress each other, booming on about red wines from Ruritania and Muscats from Micronesia. Names are dropped: Hugh Johnson, Jancis Robinson, Oz Clarke...

Hugh Johnson introduced the new middle-class to wine by writing in an informative, readable, way, without compromising his style, He helped democratise wine. I have tried spread the social range of beer. Occasionally, Johnson and Jackson meet in the middle. It suddenly occurs to me that my host is a brewer. Doesn't he have a beer good enough to offer with lunch? Maybe he should create one.

If I were taking the trouble to make a fine beer, I would want to see these people buying my product, not deriding it.

Perhaps you are a brewer, too. Doesn't it worry you when people with social aspirations imply that you are making a product they could not contemplate drinking? A product that can be dismissed as though it were embarrassing? If I were taking the trouble to make a fine beer, I would want to see these people buying my product, not deriding it.

And those of the female persuasion? Are they permitted only to drink wine? It has long been the case that a substantial proportion of women think beer is only for men. Women represent half the population, and they have largely been disdained, even alienated, by the brewers.

Reaching out to this audience does not entail making light, bland, beers for the little lady. There is no such thing as a female taste in beer. I am reluctant to admit to any differences in preference, but some women are smaller than men, and find very gassy beers bloating.

Women need the same information as men: "How will this beer taste? Why does it taste like that? Why is that enjoyable? Why do you make the beer that way? Is there a particular moment for this beer? If now is not that moment, what other beers do you make? And yes, information on calories might be useful.

Whether you like it or not, the middle-class consumer is educated and articulate, and constantly asks questions. Perhaps they started with concerns over weight and health, then moved on to issues like GM, organic ingredients, and additives. It all sounds a bit negative, but it leads to positive discoveries: not least that beer is a natural, agricultural product.

Get out of the pub and go to the supermarket. See that lady over there? She is thinking about buying that bottle of wine. It costs six times as much as your beer. She is reading the back-label and the shelf-talker: "A firm-bodied, crisp, red from one of the region's younger wine-makers. Lightly cherry-like, fresh, flavours, with a touch of tannin. Sufficient acidity to accompany the lighter red meats, such as lamb." She pops a bottle into her trolley. On second thoughts, make that two.

Now she is moving to the shelves of beer. There are between 50 and 100 beers. One or two have interesting bottles and labels. She looks at them first. Is there a neck-tag or back-label? Any information? "Brewed from the finest malted barley and carefully chosen hops." Well, that's a relief. Better than "the cheapest malted barley we could find and carelessly chosen hops." Ever wonder why wine seems more credible to the consumer than beer?

Worse still, wine is no longer satisfied to enjoy its superior image. Jean Barrique is a nice guy, but he is stealing customers from John Barleycorn, at least in the traditional brewing nations. You may point out that wine's share of the drinks market is far smaller than beer's, but the balance is shifting, especially in value. If you own a brewery, make beer, or otherwise depend upon it for your livelihood, I suggest you take this seriously. You may be selling more beer in the wine countries, but it will never be enough to compensate.

Whether traditionally separated the wine countries from the brewing

nations. In the cultivation of grapes versus grain, it still does, but where does that leave Australia, for example? Remember the days when an Aussie could not open his mouth without bragging about his nation's beer? Now, even the brewers there seem more interested in wine. They don't want to buy it by the glass - by the vineyard is what they have in mind.

Even in countries where wine-lovers are clearly a minority, the non-committed drinkers are far more familiar with the grape than with the grain.

Even in countries where wine-lovers are clearly a minority, the non-committed drinkers are far more familiar with the grape than with the grain. People who have never had a glass of wine in their lives are aware that it is made from grapes. Most people also know that wine can be: white or red; sweet or dry; still or sparkling. They may even know that a Cabernet grape produces aromas and flavours that distinguish it from a Pinot Noir. Or that either grape would vary in character between France, California and Chile.

What is the basic raw material of beer? How many people would reply: "Grain, usually barley that has been malted"? Wheat beers, rye beers and oatmeal stouts would be unlikely to rate a mention. Most consumers would say that beer is made from hops. What is a hop? Few would know. Even fewer would appreciate the differences conferred by one variety or another. Does this matter? Brewers usually take the view that these are technical matters, of no interest to the consumer.

The wine industry has learned otherwise, to its great benefit.

Published Online: MAY 6, 2002
Published in Print: MAR 1, 2002
In: Brewers' Guardian

- Editorial

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