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October 2011

Writing Beer Menus: A Guide

I’ve recently been involved in a few discussions about beer menus. It started with Alice (of Beer For A Year fame) and Phil (of Beer Diary notoriety) having an online discussion about the complete ridiculousness of not including beer prices on the menu. It continued with an Auckland SOBA member very nearly editing the O’Carrolls’ error-ridden beer list with a red pen (he left them a note instead). And last Friday I have an internal rant to myself about the mistakes on The Brewery Britomart’s hastily printed menu at their soft opening (I kept it internal due to it’s obvious draft form). SoI think it’s about time ‘A Guide to Writing Beer Menus’.

In General: 
– Don’t be ashamed of your beer list. Please don’t hide it away at the end, next to the soft drinks. This is especially true if you market yourself as a beer destination – if this is a case, put the beer before the wine and cocktails.
– If economically possible, have more than one list so that customers can take it back to their table, particularly if it’s a fairly long list. This way, people can take their time and not block up the bar, um-ing and ah-ing.

The Essentials:
– Beer’s name
– Brewery
– Beer style
– ABV
– Glass type / serving size
– Price

The Nitty-Gritty:
– Double-check all your spelling, if only to prevent ridicule. ‘Batch 18’ is a wonderful Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout; ‘Patch 18’ could be anything from a fix for your computer to a area in Northland that contains illicit weeds.
– Be consistent in your formatting. It’s debated whether Pale Ale or pale ale is correct, but pick one style and stick to it.

Lastly, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Having a beer menu is still a relatively new thing, just like craft beer itself. If you’re not sure, ask a resident beer geek, email a beer blogger or contact your  local brewer. They’re mostly friendly people and would be happy to give you a hand.

Just like I’m sure they’ll now tell me what I’ve forgotten to include.

Beer and History: You Get What You Pay For

Right, let’s see how many people I can offend (or possibly bore) in one post.

The recent publication of the Oxford Companion to Beer has produced a flurry of negative comments in the online beer community. Ron Pattison has pulled apart the Scottish section, Martyn Cornell cautions it may be a ‘complete disaster’ and Andy Crouch is questioning whether beer writers should even be writing history at all. There’s even been a Wiki set up where people can lodge errors and omissions in the hopes of improving the second edition. If the blogosphere is to be believed, the OBC is riddled with mistakes.

But really, what did people expect? Historic research is time-consuming and expensive, neither of which fits into the demands of the publishing industry. Publishers want to publish books while something is still in fashion and they want to make a profit. But before we all go blaming the fat-cat publishers, take a good look at how much you pay for your books. On the sites listed above, there were many comments along the lines of handing over a great deal of money for the book – but the truth is you get what you pay for. In this era we are spoilt for free information – we are very fortunate the likes of Martyn and Ron share their discoveries with us for free. I think few non-historians appreciate just how long historic research takes. It’s not just a matter of accessing information as easily as you can through Wikipedia – you have to find the right source, the right tid-bit of information within that source and then fit it into the larger picture – and you have to do it over and over again, hundreds or thousands of times until you build up the big picture.

To give you an example of the time scale, when I was working on my Masters thesis, I realised I hadn’t gotten the information that I needed from the New Plymouth archives when I was there. Luckily, my Mum lives down there and I knew the sources well enough to tell her exactly where to find the information. She rang to report on what she had found: ‘I don’t know where the time went but I managed to spend four hours there and only went through three catalogues – I’ve still got six to go. Is this why you’ve been at university for so long?’ It took about eight hours all up to find all the pieces of information, which then contributed to only half a paragraph in my thesis. On this example, if I paid a research assistant for all the information in my thesis, at a mere $15 per hour, it would’ve cost, at the very least, $64,000. This is probably a vast underestimate – in the example above I already knew what the sources were and what information I wanted from them.

I cannot emphasise it enough: historic research is very, very expensive. This doesn’t excuse shoddy research of course; but more to reinforce that you get what you pay for. Research = time and time = money. It’s sad but true, that it is simply more affordable to publish well-known (but often erroneous) ‘facts’ than to commission people to do proper research.

To push the jaded historian image even further, I do have to point out that in the telling of history, there’s no dichotomy of right and wrong, but rather a scale with ‘right’ at one end and ‘wrong’ at the other. I hate to be post-modern, but there are very few ‘facts’ in history – the most you can hope for is a statement well-supported by evidence. This is particular true in histories of every day items, like beer, food, hand-crafts or gardening. No one thinks to record these activities, because they are so commonplace, meaning evidence of them is hidden deep down in an archive about something else entirely.

I’ll still be buying my Dad a copy of the OCB for Christmas – we’ll have a great Christmas afternoon pouring over it, beer in hand, learning and debating. Because even inaccurate histories are interesting, if only for their mistakes.

Beer is Beautiful

I love beautiful beer glasses. I have very little idea which glass is right for which beer or the best way to ensure my glasses are spotlessly clean. In fact, previous to last Friday, I didn’t own any good beer glasses. Being young and flatting, I don’t own a lot of nice kitchen stuff and being accident-prone, anything nice I acquire doesn’t last very long.* In the weekend though, Dad returned from Germany with these lovely second-hand glasses for me.

I’m currently drinking out of the one of the right, from Fürstliche Brauerei from Wächtersbach, near Frankfurt. I’m a slightly nervous every time I pick it up, but it is a delight to drink from, with a nice weight in the bottom and a thin lip. I know very little about the brewery or what beers they produce, but their glasses are great.

Attractive and elegant beer glasses have the potential to give craft beer kudos in the eyes of people who generally think beer is for quaffing – and that can mean anyone from wine snobs to rugby meatheads. When Martin Bosley introduced beer matchings at his self-named restaurant in Wellington, he served the beer in wine glasses to break people’s perception of beer. I’ve used the technique myself, when introducing friends to beer – with a wine glass in hand, they’re more like to give the beer a swish, a sniff and a sip, appreciating its colour, as well as its aroma and flavour.

Humans are superficial creatures, who admire beautiful things. And that’s one thing which I don’t think we’ve promoted much as craft beer advocates – the beauty of beer. Craft beer comes in an amazing array of shades and hues, from the palest lemon to the darkest chocolate. The froth can offer creamy suds or gorgeous lacing. There’s no reason why it should only be associated with the piss-yellow fizzy stuff that accompanies mainstream beer ads (when they bother to show it). Craft beer’s appearance is much like it’s flavour – variable, subtle and as much a creation of the brewer.

From Phil Cook's Beer Diary blog, which admirably has a photogenic beer category

So take the time to admire your beer. Hopefully one day food photographers, magazine creative directors and those other apparent setters of style may start to appreciate its beauty as well and we’ll have more gorgeous photos of mouth-watering brews accompanying our food in our media – or even just there for beer’s own sake.

*Since I moved into my current flat in June, I’ve broken three glasses, a mug, a large cooking bowl and a jar each of peanut butter and Moroccan spice.  

Trying to Explain Beer

Last night I wrote a rather angry post about a New Zealand craft brewery (well, more specifically, their marketing team). On reflection I decided not to post it – first, because it would merely give their advertising tactics more publicity, and second, I didn’t feel it was in my style. I would rather be positively contributing to our burgeoning craft beer scene. So I stepped away from my computer and went downstairs for a beer.

Once downstairs, I somehow ended up attempting to explain to my flatmate Shelley how beer is made and how brewers give it different flavours. Now, I have a fairly good grasp on how beer is made and an even better handle on the English language. But it was like trying to explain how to tie shoelaces without using your hands or a pair of shoelaces. Shelley is a wine drinker and on the very rare occasions when she drinks beer, it’ll be something mainstream (I think that’s why there’s an Export 33 in our fridge).

Some concepts were easy to explain. Mashing, for example, is a fairly easy one – the brewer mills his malted barley, breaking the grain open so the sugars can be released when they are soaked in hot water, providing sustenance for the yeast. The use of hops for both bittering and aroma was also fairly uncomplicated, using Kelly Ryan’s analogy that hops are to brewers what spices are to cooks.

A bit more technically challenging to explain why different beers have different ABVs. There’s a lot of processes and concepts built into this – starting gravities, attenuation, strains of yeast and what not – and to be honest, I’ve only got a handle on it myself very recently. But I think we got there in the end.

Where it completely – and surprisingly – fell apart was beer styles. Shelley has only ever tried NZ Lagers and Guinness. I think this is probably the extent of many non-craft-beer-drinkers experience and I would liken it to a person having tried only two types of cheese – colby and edam. The sheer variety outside of either of these two is almost impossible to explain. And it’s probably one of those instances where you shouldn’t be explaining, but showing instead – sitting down with half a dozen different styles, so you’ve got examples at hand. Because really, it’s much easy to show someone how to tie their shoelaces by demonstrating on a pair of shoelaces.

All in all though, I felt the conversation went well: we’ve decided to have a flat beer-tasting session. And it was a much more productive way of promoting New Zealand craft beer than slagging off some marketing team.

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