Two beer-related stories have caught my eye during the past week, each one seemingly the polar opposite of the other.
The first was a rant against hipster retro in the shape of the Churchkey Can Company and their 'new' flat top beer cans. I must be honest with you, I agree with most of what the writer says although not necessarily the way he said it, but fair play to him - when something gets you as riled as that it's a Good Thing to vent your spleen. "Better out than in", my old granddad used to say. For instance:
"Note that this is NOT the same as the twist-off vs. pry cap issue. The twist-off is an inefficient seal that shreds fingers something like three out of every twenty tries, whereas the pry cap provides a nearly fail-proof seal that can be opened with anything from an opener to a lighter to a rolled-up magazine."
Agree 100%. The pry cap, aka crown cork, is a satisfactory and proven method for sealing a bottle of liquid and it rarely fails. The twist-off is a different matter. It fails far more often and I wouldn't want to trust any of my cellared beers to one of those. As the author points out, you don't even need a specific tool to open a crown cork (if you tell me you haven't tried to get one off with your teeth - I know I have - I won't believe you), and besides, I've carried one of these, which I picked up in a little junk shop for literally a few pennies, on my keyring for at least 30 years. I don't feel the same urge to do that with a flat can punch. And then there's this:
"But selling a beer of any sort based upon the kind of can it’s in harkens to the worst of the big brewing companies’ marketing manipulations, and if you fall for it, then you might as well also stock your fridge with cans that change colour when cold and bottles that swirl your beer as you pour."
If that's the sole reason for selling the Churchkey Can Company's Pilsner, then yes, agree 100%. I've always felt that anything done purely for its own sake is a waste of time and effort, but if the beer inside the can is a decent brew (it's getting pretty mediocre reviews on Beer Advocate) I might still buy it as long as they haven't added anything to the price purely for the can. I'm intrigued to know more about the can's build. Those cans that you had to open with a punch (and I'm plenty old enough to remember them, by the way) were far sturdier than today's paper-thin aluminium cans. I can just see someone trying to get into one of those with a flat opener and the whole thing concertina-ing like the crumple zone of a crash test car. If they're having to make the cans stronger in order to stand up to the rigours of being opened with a punch, doesn't that negate all the green credentials of today's beer cans? Assuming those credentials really are as green as they're made out to be. Lagunitas owner Tony Magee doesn't so think.
Not wanting to be left behind, the big brewers are getting in on the act too, although I suspect this has less to do with hipster retro and more to do with a need to keep selling a beer that needs to be sold because it doesn't have much else, besides a low price, going for it. Whenever there's any similar kind of 'innovation' by the big brewers the same question keeps coming up - instead of unloading mountains of cash on researching and developing redundant new ways of hyping the beer, why don't they spend it on improving the stuff?
The second story to pique my interest was about a brewery which is looking towards the future rather than the past by creating a 'Digital Age' series of beers whose entire label (apart from the name and the usual legally mandated stuff) will be a QR code which, if you point your smartphone at it, takes you to a brief video of the brewery's owner talking about it and some links. Leaving aside the argument over aesthetics (QR codes are hardly the most attractive thing to look at) this got me thinking about a recent conversation on a beer geek forum enquiring as to whether other beer geeks check the reviews before buying a beer. It's a conversation which surfaces from time to time and often makes me shake my head in despair.
I love progress, but only as long it makes things better (and yes, I know that's a highly subjective and contentious statement). Take teh interwebz, for example.
Can you remember what it was like before http? I've lived about 70% of my life (so far) without it and I sometimes wonder how we managed. Having all that information at my fingertips instead of having to wait until the next time I can get to the library and then finding they don't have the relevant reference book anyway? Yeah, that's progress. Being able to call almost anywhere in the world at any time (and often for free) thanks to Skype and voice over IP instead of having to make a booking months in advance if you want to call granny in Australia on Christmas Day? Progress. Email instead of snailmail? Yep. Listening to BBC radio in real time via streaming audio while 5,000 miles from Broadcasting House? Absolutely.
But experience has shown me that with progress there's often a price to be paid in one way or another, and although it can make life's content a little richer it can also make human beings more lazy and less self-reliant (myself included I must add in all honesty).
I had a schoolfriend whose father was a music teacher and part-time singer in the chorus at Covent Garden. We were chatting one evening and he imparted something which I thought quite profound at the time. He said that he'd been studying, singing, listening to and teaching classical music for so long that, although he knew he'd always be learning about it, he'd recently realised there were no areas of his given subject that he was unsure of any more. He felt a new confidence in his knowledge and in his role as a teacher and that this all gave him a very pleasant sense of inner calm.
While I'm a long way from that point in the knowledge of my own subject, I've long had a good enough understanding of it (since before it became my job to study beer to the degree I do nowadays) to be able to go into a beer shop and have a pretty good idea of what was inside the bottle I'd just bought even though I might have never had that particular beer before. If I rely on my smartphone, a website and a set of self-imposed restrictions based on the preferences of others to determine which beers (or anything else) I buy, not only will I be learning little or nothing about beer, I might be missing out on some brews that appeal to my palate while not to that of the majority of reviewers.
But more than that I'll be playing it safe and taking the fun out of it. Life is full of risks; it's one of the things that makes it interesting. Everyone ought to be able to make a simple everyday decision such as buying a new beer without the crowd's assurance that it's good enough for an 80 score. Go ahead, take a chance on it!