I rarely think of things as being "Canadian" because "Canadian" is a bit elusive. Usually you need an American friend to let you know something is weird so that you can tell him "oh, that's Canadian." Sitting in a beer tent at long plastic covered tables during a cold downpour watching iconic 1970s rockers April Wine on a military base at a civvie invitation only concert feet in chilling puddles watching soldiers and pals and dates and, apparently, parents and grandparents having a good time on the one macro beer on offer struck me as pretty Canadian as I was sitting in the midst of it there last night. There in the foggy tent on the parade square asphalt. Do other nations even have laws requiring beer tents? The stamping of hands as you go in? I didn't have any beer. Not because I didn't like the beer. Mooseheads pale ale is decent enough for a beer tent. Fact: the porta potties were a hurricane away. Others didn't pass on the opportunity. Watched one guy down eight or ten Mooseheads in the first half hour we were there. He was givin' 'er. As we say. It was so foggy in the tent from the downpour outside that it started condensing on the inside of the tent, rain reforming to pour on our heads. A science lesson in itself. We left not just because of that or because it was so loud that I stuffed wads of Kleenex in my ears but because they played their 1979 cover of King Crimson's "21st Century Schizoid Man" which I had not appreciated they had in fact once recorded. They did an excellent job for the eleven minutes of that tune but the crowd was there for songs on the radio, songs with lyrics like "tonight is a wonderful night to fall in love, oh yeah" and not covers of early prog rock speed metal. Earlier, folk had happily Legion danced to the opening band, Whiskey Overdrive, playing classic rock covers. Legion dancing requires a generous application of the elbows. And a few Mooseheads. There's a real happy levelling that goes on when military folk are partying. The opposite of the oneupsmanship you can get at house parties filled with strangers. Military folk already know who in the room is one up. Still, there was a bit of a crush at the exit gate as we left. But plenty stayed. It was really good. Good company. Good out dinner before. Good being among Canadians. People were having a time.
Because good beer is (i) a pleasure trade topic and (ii) a minor league one in the hierarchy of pop culture, you do have to accept this sort of thing:
Spruce ice cream, spruce syrup and spruce-tip salads were hot culinary items this spring, but creating tasty treats with the needles of this northern evergreen is far from a new notion. Spruce-beer soda has been a favourite among French-Canadians for decades. Its popularity has wavered over the years, but people are once again clamouring for the sweet, earthy drink. First Nations and early settlers of Quebec brewed vitamin-C-filled spruce beer prior to the 1700s to combat kidney illnesses, stomach upset and scurvy. It was considered a poor man’s drink until Swedish explorer Pehr Kalm brought news to Europe that the strange recipe was indeed making people healthier.
And the article is really about the use of spruce as a flavouring so there's no need to go all handbags or anything. But it is a shame that no one is brewing actual 1700s spruce beer. As longer term readers would be aware, the recipe from 1759 is there for all to see and brew. George Washington brewed one when he was still sensibly loyal to the Crown in 1757. The heavy sweetness of molasses offsetting the pungent household cleaner effect of the spruce boughs. Pretty sure, however, Kalm didn't teach the Swedes anything about evergreens. We had a Swedish exchange student who showed us all on the walk home in spring how to eat the new mild softwood buds just as the brown paper coating was cracking. Can't imagine Vikings didn't know that, too. The English in Hudson Bay as early as the 1660s and '70s knew about the anti-scurvy properties of beer, something Billy Baffin seemed to be figuring out in 1610-11 as he rammed herbs into it. Something we have learned Champlain had to work out on the fly about the same time in New France.
OK. Let's agree that it was pervasive and useful. Maybe oddly, there seems to have been a taste for it well after the frontier days and the retreat of scurvy. Craig located spruce beer still being brewed in Albany in 1790. I found it being spruce used in something called California Pop Beer in the third-quarter of the 1800s in New Jersey. And as the article says, it used to be in the Crush soda pop line up deep into the 1900s. But by the late 1800s it's one of the forms of adulteration in beer listed in at least one British study. Was that it's fate? Science considered it bad for beer?
Spruce is clearly an eastern North American indigenous beer flavouring that was enjoyed for centuries. BeerAdvocate lists a scant few spruce beers. I've had the one from Garrison in Halifax, Nova Scotia as well as its cousin, Alba from Scotland. It's be nice to have more - and, really, have ones that are molasses based old school ales. Are there other beers like this? Beers built around local ingredients and adjuncts that were quite broadly commercially popular which have fallen so far out of favour that even the craft brewers won't touch them? The gruits I suppose if you go far back enough, keeping in mind that gruits are specific early Renaissance tax regime imposed herb blend beers from the Low Countries and not just any old herb beer from any old point in European history. Calling any old herb beer gruit is like calling something pumpkin ale when it's sold in July and is just flavoured with pie spices and gourd gak from a can.
Craig sent me this link. It's from the The American Art Journal, Vol. 6, No. 9 (Dec. 22, 1866), pp. 136-137, from a column in the journal named "Literary Matters." It's a review of the verse bit in "Ale: In Prose and Verse" - a bit of a puff piece Taylor's Brewery of Albany, NY had written about itself and its recently deceased founder, John Taylor. Click on the image for a more readable version. Taylor lived from 1790 to 1864 and was the first large scale brewing magnate in the US, well before lager got its foothold, selling his ales from Newfoundland to Hawaii. Effectively a poem, a brewery and, in fact, a phase of America's industrial history generally forgotten until Craig and I got messing around with the story about five years ago.
This review of the poem is very instructive. The fame of Taylor's ale "is almost world wide" and, "having amassed considerable wealth," they hired a poet and an essayist to sing the praises of the brewery's work. It is "little more nor less than an advertisement." The reviewer plays along at the start, describing the work as "at times perfectly delicious." He says that "Taylor's ale is at least pure", too. But then he admits as the poet reaches mug after mug of the ale, as the genial brew is "mounting to his brain," well, he admits that the poet's eye has found itself in a wild "phrenzy rolling." Directly, if politely, the reviewer is suggesting perhaps that the poet fails to achieve his objectives through going a bit over the top in his client's favour.
Sound familiar? Any different from claims to great simplicity? It's all a bit much, isn't it. As an artifact, the poem, essay, the illustrations are telling in the sense that they serve as a record of the business's ambition and pride. But as a statement, the poem is hyperbole. Unreliable if genial. The sort of thing I was mentioning the other day. 'Twas ever apparently so.
So, two weeks have passed since the grand announcement of the Prize For The Advancement Of Good Beer Writing. Behind the scenes I have been scurrying about doing three things: seeking out judges, clarifying the rules and drumming up funds for the prize. Let's see where things stand.
I could not be more pleased to announce the names of our judges. In this inaugural year I am honoured to be joined, in alphabetical order, by Martyn Cornell, Stan Hieronymus and Evan Rail. Each we selected for not only their distinct physical location within the good beer world but as importantly their professional journalism chops. These three have edited and been edited at the highest level. It will be their job alone to make determinations in relaxation to the entries. I am not on the panel. I also will not submit an entry. I may be asked to provide procedural advice but that's it. And what is it they will be judging?
1. The topic should relate fairly directly to the experience of beer: brewing, drinking or local pub life. It should display humour and wit, historical context and a depth of research. It should not be derivative.
2. Prize(s) to go to only unpublished finished new writing displaying a interesting point of view.
3. Quality footnoted research showing primary records will be rewarded. If not by way of footnotes, other proof of research will be considered and itself judged according to a professional standard.
4. A work of fiction or non-fiction in English between 2500 to 4000 words is the goal but no penalty for going to, say, 6000 as long as its necessary for the story or essay or poem - and not a sign of poor editing control.
I am quite excited by this. The entries will be due in time to coincide with this year's holiday photo contest. The winner will be announced along with the photo contest winner. And unlike the photo contest I hope the prize will a more than a nominal book prize. I am beating the bushes seeking pledges from my contacts in the brewing trade to get in some significant cash to share. I myself and committing my annual honorarium of $100 USD for judging in last year's NAGBW awards. Other pledges to date have come in from the US, the UK and New Zealand with a total of over $250 USD in the kitty so far. My goal will be something north of $1000 and the dream multiples of that. But the monies that will be awarded will be only those monies actually received in my hands. Relying on pledges, one learns from running contest involving beer folk, can be rather disappointing. Not this time. As money is received, the donors will be announced. As of today, then, the prize stands at $100 USD. All donations go to the prize or prizes.
Any questions? Like "why are you doing this?" Because, as the dog said, I can. Happy to discuss and refine the requirements. Let's get this going.
It's the first bit of the month. Session time. I almost forgot. A bit like my subject for last January's 95th edition of the Session when I last hosted, the question for consideration today posed by Natasha Godard at MetaCookBook is this:
I’ll be hosting September’s Session with folks’ posts going up on Friday the fourth. For this session, I’m asking my fellow beer bloggers two related questions:
1. What do you want people in beer culture to be talking about that we’re not?
2. What do you have to say on the topic(s)?
I am not sure I can really consider this without asking out loud - what is "beer culture"? The tough thing about writing a beer blog for twelve years or so is that one sees cycles of ideas - and "beer culture" is one of them that comes and goes. Beer for me is just a part of the general pop culture. If you are in a beer-centric sub-culture check to see if you are a dipsomaniac who really needs a visit to the doctor to update your ALT and AST test results. Unless you make your money in the trade... in which case, well, that is still good advice.
But back to the question. What isn't being talked about? Well, how crappy what passes as brewing history is comes to mind. Folk still think that US micro-brewing revolution since the 1980s is the first boom of strong hoppy ales. Wrong. The facts are right there asking to be discussed. Not that much interest. People think before scientific brewing begins in the 1800s that all beer was brown, sour and smoke-laced. Nope. Again, the facts are still right there. It goes on and on: the beginnings of IPA, the reasons for the ascendancy of lager. Fibs, fibs and more fibs.
Why is this? Why don't readers care enough to reject it all? Mainly because no one cares. People like beer for a number of reasons, most surrounding the whole "get's you a bit of a jag on" thing. Good beer generally makes good on the tasty jag promise. And when one has a jag on one thinks of many things... with a fair bit interior imagining at play. One's mind starts going off in unusual wee directions before the first glass is emptied. And it's not just the history, of course. It's the way alcohol makes the company more pleasing, makes the brand more worthy of loyalty, makes the umpteenth ident-a-bio of the craft brewer almost readable. It's what makes you think your are more charming than you are. No one needs to act surprised by this: whether in little happy ways or grim life ruining ways, it's a deceiver. It deters us from caring. About those tired feet, the worries of the day, the troubles at work, the burdens of life, the harrowing reality of our mortality.
We like to be deceived. Maybe we even need it. In reasonable measure. We call it romance when it pleases. Michael Jackson was quite good at creating romantic myth around beer. I can't bear that part of his writing in particular... except when I do. One of his greater weaknesses.¹ Jordan sees the practical value of a well placed romantic myth to a brewer. We really are agreeing. Want to shift your beer? Make up a pleasing set of lies about it. Just don't expect me to miss you doing it when you do.
Second question. What do I have to say about it? Other than pointing out that the whole trade is an equation wherein alcohol plus falsehood equals money, not much I can do. Trade has to go on. People need a bit of comfort in a glass.
¹ ...another thing that we don't like to discuss.
The odd thing about the whole "oooh, I hate pumpkin beer and especially this early stuff" is how it is a complaint against homogeneity and bandwagoning. Consider this and then let's all gather back, shall we?
They started piling up in my inbox in early August. Press releases, new ones coming in every day, heralding the debut of a new pumpkin porter here and a returning pumpkin ale there. EARLY AUGUST. The beaches were still packed with tourists, it was about a hundred thousand degrees outside, and kids hadn’t even returned to school. And yet, the deluge of pumpkin seasonals had begun. This is the craft beer equivalent of getting Christmas discount fliers in September. It’s not ok. And so I feel it necessary to issue a request to the craft beer community: Can we cool it a bit on pumpkin beer?
I was thinking of this when I was in Maine last month - in the first half of August - and no matter where I was, the city market or the grocery, there already was pumpkin ale everywhere. Stacks of it. Shoving aside the specials on bulk Charmin at aisle's end. Unigourd. The only thing that was not pushed aside was the IPA in various brands and blends. Designs and claims of all sorts pronounced IPA here, IPA there, in fact. All fairly samey, all fairly... samey. An ocean of IPA there next to the ocean. Try this. Put "grapefruit" and "IPA" in to Twitter and see what happens. Thousands of 140 character odes to the same flavour. The one same flavour. Sure some of the tweets about about brands labeled to let you know there is actual grapefruit added to the grapefruit flavoured IPA to make it more an homage aux les pamplemousse. But that's what so much of it is.
Remind me. Before the internet was anyone actually interested that much in gourds in August or grapefruit in anything? Forget the internet - before social media? I don't mean beer geeks or gourd marketers. Was anybody actually interested. No. So what brought us here? Here in this standardized globalized homogenize semi-range of a few otherwise fairly unpopular flavours? Demand. Must be that. Demand.
I heard this yesterday on BBC 6 at about 3:30 in the afternoon. On Iggy Pop's show. Afternoon off. Snoozing on a summer day. Or was it folding laundry. Catching up with chores or closed eyelids. David Shrigley is a Glaswegian, five years younger than me. He works in various media including short animated movies. He's done one about laundry. I've worked in short film myself. And astronaut art.
I love it. While "beer communicators" are off being told what to write by brewery publicists who can't believe their luck, "My Beer" an expression about beer. It's about what the one drinker thinks - or perhaps might think - if he or she thought about beer. The film is an animation of Shrigley's piece by the same name from his 2004 book Let's Wrestle.
Once in a while I have to log my hours at work, keeping track of what's going on. I caught up with seven weeks worth of logs today. Mind numbing until I also noticed how I raced from the first few weeks of summer to the end of August. Happy then was I to see a story includes beer and constitutional law. Thrilled? Well hold on to your hats because this is not only about constitutional law but the conflict of jurisdictions. I know. It's Christmas Day all over again:
Gerard Comeau, who lives in Tracadie, was caught in October 2012 with 14 cases of beer and three bottles of liquor that he had bought in Quebec. Section 134 of the New Brunswick Liquor Control Act limits anyone from having more than 12 pints of beer not sold by a provincially licensed liquor outlet. The defence calls that unconstitutional because Section 121 of the Constitution Act says all goods from a province are to be admitted free into each of the other provinces. However, Tom Bateman, a political science professor at St. Thomas University, says no province would consider imposing duties at provincial borders, so the section has become dormant.
We've been here before. The police of Canada's second least interesting province have had a thing about border crossing beer buying before. What is the most neato is the argument made this time, that there is a constitutional principle at place. I have never heard of a "dormant" constitutional provisions (maybe because, you know, I am a lawyer) but when it was last considered in the 1920s by the Supreme Court of Canada the Court ruled that inter-provincial goods should be admitted "free," that is to say without any tax or duty imposed as a condition of their admission: "The essential word here is "free" and what is prohibited is the levying of custom duties or other charges of a like nature in matters of interprovincial trade." Boom!
Law is never dormant. It always speaks... as the phrase goes. But if no one has a case to which it relates... it's not often heard, put it that way. One of the most irritating things about the nutty Canadian idea of inter-provincial smuggling (and, yes, some provinces have run TV ads warning against the wickedness of smuggling) is that there is not method to pay the supposed fines that are supposedly owed. It is a tax without a tax collector. Consider this. When I go to the glorious beer buying grounds of northern NY, I come back across a border through a crossing with a border guard in a booth. And about a third of the time they tell me to pay some fees and taxes. But if I bring back beer crossing from Quebec into Ontario there is no crossing booth. No guard. And really no tax or fee. No one is collecting it so that you can happily pay what some bean pusher thinks you should pay as a premium to enjoy the liberty to have a different sort of beer. Effectively, the regulation is a prohibition.
Given one cannot actual comply - one cannot make things right - the citizen and subject of the Crown needs to have a think and look around. And there it is. Section 121. A right granted by Queen Victoria's pen. To have a beer from Quebec... or a fridge from Saskatchewan... or books from across the country without inhibiting protectionist local duties and taxes. Exactly what is going on here.
Awake, section 121! You are needed now. Like a little beery bit of Arthur's sword glinting from the past reminding us that arbitrary law is most often found in the banal and habitual restrictions the interested few have imposed on the many. This is, in fact, a test of freedom's scope. All for a few beer. Lovely.
One of the saddest thing about the good beer world - amongst many - is the tension between the "be positive" struggling consulto-set and the grumbly "we're on the downside" one. Both have their leading voices and evidence to back them up. But we need to be honest about where we are. This is certainly not the golden age of good beer given all the crappy craft we have to wade through - but it's a pretty good age nonetheless. To borrow a phrase from the world of Marvel comics perhaps we may be able to agree that this is a silver age of a sort.
But, as has been pointed out quite a bit this year things are beginning to slide. The silver is starting to tarnish. Feels a little like when New Wave music was no longer new. The Pogues were the cure... as might have been The Cure I suppose. And its not just the beer - it's in the writing about beer, too. Proper beer blogs which are not careerists' blegs or fronts for brewery marketing are rare. Beer books are no longer as vibrant as when a proper publisher would support Pete Brown's wonderful explorations.† Boak and Bailey put out their absolutely fabulous Brew Britannia...‡ and zero copycat follow ups followed up. There are fewer proper beer columns being written for proper newspapers. And I have mentioned, Maureen points out that we are waist high in identical style guides and really need no more - even if that is all publishers will publish. And the junketeers. Not to mention trade association PR leaning on everything. There is very good evidence to suggest we have passed peak discourse or at least are in a very low gully with no obvious way out.
I could complain... some more... again. I could point to those who are compromised by necessity and who are unproductive complainers. I could even write a very long post about how many errors I am seeing in the history of beer written by people who ought to know better or who ought to be held back from access to a keyboard by being bound up with strong rope. But how about this? I could start this. How about creating a prize for the best new beer writing and backing it with a cash prize? I could do that. One of the best things about running the annual Xmas, Hogmanay, Yuletide and Kwanza beer photo contest is how many folk were willing to give something with little return except the collection of excellent beer photos so everyone can go "oooh!" and "ahhh!" over their overly strong holiday ales. I am going to put a little money into a kitty and start hitting others up to do likewise. I will start with $100 USD of my own cash. I spend more on postage for the Xmas contest. And I will hit folk up. Hey, I am on the executive committee of a very successful public radio station. I know how to do a fund raising drive.
But let's be clear. This is not suggesting that the NAGBW awards are not doing the job. They are and I am a judge. What I am thinking of is simpler as well as being in addition to other efforts. This is also not to suggest I am doing any sort of Kickstarter style thing. One other thing I learned from the annual photo contest is how many deadbeats there are in good beer. It's shocking how many good names will fawn and beg to be added to the public list of prize givers only to reneg or go silent after the winners are named. No, I will need cash in hand or at least a very trustworthy track record if a contribution is to be accepted.
I will start making inquiries on your behalf. Because this is really on your behalf, right? If this sort of thing is not done you will be left with the belief that lager caused the collapse of the number of breweries in the latter half of the 1800s in the US. You will have to accept that all beer was brown, smokey and murky before 1700s. You will believe there was no real brewing industry in the US before the Civil War. You may also be left with the understanding that brewers and marketeers understand the brewing industry best. All foolish ideas. Ideas that need to putting down... like White IPA does come to think of it. Think of that. A world with better beer writing and no White IPA. Ahhh... magic.
Sound interesting? Have a spare $5 or €50? Let me know. Leave a comment. I also can be contacted a little more discretely at this blog's gmail account if you are interested in participating. We'll figure out some reasonable rules in a bit once we know how this is shaping up. Maybe non-cash prizes will be offered as well but, unlike photographers, I have a sense writers actually need cash. Maybe half will be awarded to do a bit of research. A wee pile of money. Think about it. Comments other than pledges welcome, too.
* Stonch took offence to the repeated use of Mr. Chimp Head for my "Thinking of Beer" posts so this is the next big thing in "Thinking of Beer" post technology.
† ‡ I link to their Amazon book listings for the obvious reason that you need to read these books. If you have not you are wandering alone in the shallow end. Govern yourself accordingly.