Working through my backlog of of trade press reading, I came across an interesting article in the Morning Advertiser written by Andrew Jefford a couple of months ago. He talks about the sheer obsession with increasing product quality in the St Emilion wine-growing region, the reverence the producers have for their product, and the excitement that's generated by a partiularly good vintage.
Then of course he compares this with beer, and discusses how we don't have great vintages because beer makers focus on consistency of product above all else. He talks about how most people buying beer don't have a clue what it's actually made of, and how we lack that reverence. He argues that there's a category - fine beer -that doesnlt yet exist: superlative beers that people are prepared to pay top dollar for.
I don't agree with everything he says, but it's an interesting argument and I wondered what beer geeks would think of it.
Of course we can all point to examples of fine beers that do exist - Utopias from Sam Adams, the super-strength speciality beers from Dogfish Head that redefine what beer can be, Deus, a bottle of Thomas Hardy's Ale from 1968... but I think Andrew would argue that you have to know an awful lot about beer before you're even aware of their existence, whereas anyone who has ever been to Oddbins will have at least taken a glance at the fine wine section in there.
Should brewers invest in creating more ultra-special beers? Should we be demanding, say, a greater range of 12 month wood-aged stouts that retail at twenty quid?
I would imagine the beer blogging community would instinctively say yes, because they're the kind of people who are constantly searching out challenging, full-bodied, interesting beer. And Jefford's argument that the existence of fine wines has a halo effect on the whole wine market, which could be replicated in beer, is a valid one.
I've got just one counter-argument, and I'm wondering how it might divide people.
One of the strengths of beer is its unpretentiousness, its accessibility. I don't agree that beer can only ever be a 'working class' beverage - Burton pale ale was the most fashionhable thing you could drink for twenty years or so in Victorian society - but I do think that beer is different from wine, and I occasionally get frustrated with people who want to turn beer into 'the new wine'.
We all know beer can be more complex, can go better with food etc, but when people start trying to talk about beer as if it was wine, they have a tendency to make it elitist. And when people want wine to totally replace beer, drawing battle lines between grape and grain, I lose patience. Anybody who appreciates the subtleties of flavour in a great craft beer and says they 'don't like' wine is either delusional or a liar, and just as bad as those ignorant people who say they 'don't like beer' after drinking one warm can of Bud when they were nineteen.
Elitism is part of wine's character, so it's going to be much easier to build in snobbery, mystique, and a sense of specialness. The frustrating part of this is that people can order a bottle of cheap, industrially produced pinot grigio, drink it super-chilled, and while they're drinking the wine equivalent of Carling Extra Cold, believe they're actally superior to someone drinking, say, cask ale.
Beer would lose a lot of its soul if it simply aped the culture and mystique around wine.
So I'm not sure. I'd love to see 'fine beers' more commonly on the shelves, but can we have that and keep beer as the democratic, sociable drink it has been for five thousand years? Can beer successfully challenge wine at the top level - I'm talking about popular perception, not just among aficionados - without becoming arsey and pretentious? I hope so, but I'm not sure...