My Son the Guide

The Politics of Beer by | May 2009 | Issue #28

Today, work begins on the seventh edition of Good Beer Guide Belgium. I know this because yesterday, we put edition six to bed. It comes out in June, so I have several weeks to find sanctuary in the hills.

For those who don’t know it, Good Beer Guide Belgium is a 380-page beer travelogue that describes every brewery, beer, specialist café, festival and worthwhile tourist attraction found in the little kingdom on the northern coast of Europe that boasts the world’s finest beer culture. Everyone should visit once.

Since it first appeared in 1992, GBGB has grown to include advice on where to buy beer, bar etiquette, what a train is, why cycling is good, how to eat food and so on. It is an impossible creation and I love it like a son through whom I can relive my insufficiently misspent youth.

Mainly, it is about politics.

GBGB came about because a bunch of us got rather merry in the Brugs Beertje café in Bruges one Thursday night in October 1986, and decided it was time that British beer drinkers and pub goers become more ambitious.

Michael (that’s Jackson) said the British needed to be led toward Belgian brewing. Brian (Glover—then editor of CAMRA’s newspaper) cautioned that in a country busy reviving weak, low-carbonation, draft beers, getting people to appreciate strong, fizzy, bottled ones was a big ask. Roger (Protz) said CAMRA should become a publisher.

Iain (Dobson—CAMRA’s company secretary) just kept saying, “My friend here dabbles in Dubbel,” and smiling. I took notes.

Within 18 months, this gang went on to found the now some-200-member-strong British Guild of Beer Writers—proof that Belgian beers aid dynamic thinking in a way that Bud Light never could.

GBGB is such an unlikely book that its mere existence allows me to get away with more robust statements than others dare, about the unpalatable but self-evident truths of the brewing industry.

“For over a century, beer drinkers have been expected to conform to drinking whatever is most convenient for the industry to produce.”

Those of us privileged to be published when we write about something we enjoy are a lucky few. To squander that honor by being nice about everything seems to me disrespectful of that opportunity.

That said, getting away with arguing what you think is a rare treat in the beer world. Big business as it is elsewhere buys out criticism through sponsorship and advertising. Catch the ear of the public with something off the corporate message of beer-hey-fun-yeah, and they are genuinely taken aback.

Global producers in particular have become used to a customer base of fashion clones and malleable gumps. They handle dissident opinion by ignoring it. Suing would risk drawing attention to their shortfalls and, as yet, nobody has put out a contract on me. (I assume I would be the first to know.)

Over the decades, I have conversed with many major players of the brewing industry—those top guns who give edgy beer writers the time of day, drink classic light ales and exude affable confidence. Generally, I like them.

My first such interviewee, some 20 years ago, deserved my question, “If you are so proud of your brewing credentials, why do you produce all this characterless piss?” And I deserved the answer—“Because my customers prefer me to do so.”

For over a century, beer drinkers have been expected to conform to drinking whatever is most convenient for the industry to produce. And the point is that most of us conform. Our submission is by consent.

Pushing back the silt of mediocrity means taking the appreciation of better-brewed beers to drinkers, producers and retailers alike, and it is a nonstop effort. I had better get back to preparing edition seven.