I googled 'Calcutta IPA' the other day to see if anyone else had written about the beer that was brewed for my trip to India, and it led me to a forum at www.ratebeer.com where the White Shield Brewery was being discussed.
Now, I'll be the first to admit that one of the world's biggest corporate multinational brewers is a curious fit with the tiny brewery sitting in the middle of one of its yards, but some of the ignorant, ill-informed vitriol aimed at the site in Burton made me laugh, then made me angry, then very sad.
I'm going to sound like an apologist for Coors simply because they made my trip to India possible (though just to make it clear, they brewed the beer - they in no way sponsored the trip, and they certainly don't need my help). Anyway, it's not just this one issue - this is merely an example of an attitude that sometimes makes me think of jacking in beer writing. I just don't want anyone normal to think that I'm in any any like these sad, fanatical conspiracy theorists.
The subtext of the whingers is that because White Shield is now owned by Coors, it is therefore shit. Hmm. That'll be why it won Champion Bottled Beer at GBBF in 2006, why sales are up by over 50% year on year, and why brewer Steve Wellington was named Brewer of the Year by the All Party Parliamentary Beer Group last year is it? Or are these just more examples of corporate cronyism?
There are some astonishing claims made on the forum: most astonishing of all is that White Shield is a 'mediocre' beer. But it's also asserted that White Shield is not really brewed here at all, that it is made in a factory, that it has no individual character, and that what was formerly known as the Museum Brewery no longer brews small batches of individual and eclectic one-off beers.
As someone who brewed such just such a small batch beer there last year, I beg to differ. You don't even have to go that far - just walk into the brewery tap and you've a choice of several beers not available anywhere else. If the people writing this garbage had visited the brewery or taken the trouble to find any out any facts about White Shield by any means whatsoever, they would have quickly realised what drivel they were talking.
The White Shield Brewery is owned by Coors but is given near-total autonomy. It still creates boutique beers for individual landlords, and White Shield is still an astonishing beer, all of which is brewed on the premises. Steve Wellington is a universally respected brewer of enormous integrity.
The point is, there's an attitude in beer appreciation that's the same as the one I used to have when I was a teenage indie kid: back then, we thought anything on a major label was shit, anyone who actually got into the charts had sold out. It seems lots of beer fans enjoy being just as miserable as I was then. Big brewers churning out bland lager are easy hate targets, but when they start to show some interest in characterful beers, the vitriol only increases. Why?
It was the same when Inbev launched Artois Bock. The beer hasn't fared brilliantly, it could have been marketed better, but here was the world's biggest brewer creating a characterful Belgian ale and getting a shitstorm from many sides of the beer community for its efforts. Inbev do some really, really scummy things and often operate against the interests of beer drinkers, but this was not one of those times. It's basic psychology that if you want to change someone's behaviour you praise the the good at the same time as you condemn the bad. Otherwise, how can you blame them if they just carry on as they were?
This attitude doesn't exist in, say, the whisk(e)y world. Michael Jackson used to judge single malts owned by Diageo on their merits alongside those from tiny distilleries. It's a blight on beer that we can't do the same, and it should come as no surprise when people dismiss the entire beer community as whining Luddites.
I believe we should be trying to persuade Inbev, SABMiller and Coors to turn their huge drinker bases on to more characterful beers, to use their huge marketing muscle to help develop a more eclectic drinking scene.
But am I wrong?
Is there a case for saying that craft beer should be the exclusive preserve of small craft brewers, that it's healthier and more attractive overall if great beer was kept entirely separate from huge corporations driven by shareholder value who may somehow taint it?