Friday, 15 August 2014

Togetherness. One Possible Future.

My last blog post about keg's absence from the Great British Beer Festival triggered some interesting reactions - some here, but predominantly on Twitter and in 'real life' (where, mercifully, the concept of good debate still endures in spite of social media.)

One of the comments left on that post hinted, quite reasonably, that I follow up on my observations with some action. Maybe in the form of an idea. After all, it's all very well highlighting what's wrong, but quite something else to find solutions.

So I've given it some thought, and I'm wondering if the answer may be more simple than many of us thought.

Firstly though, let's not beat about the bush. The problem for CAMRA is a very tough one.

How can they possibly embrace keg without betraying the essence of their core principles?

How can they be seen to undo all those decades of hard graft?

How could anyone spend years attaining victory over their version of the devil – only invite that very same devil to join their ranks?

It sounds impossible. And yet...

I think all talk of 'giving up principles' or 'betrayal of ideals' is actually a red herring.

I don't think CAMRA needs to change at all.

Not one bit.

They can keep a firm grip on their principles and ideals – whilst giving their blessing to new ideas which just happen not to involve the same adherence to the honourable CAMRA code.

There is a way CAMRA can remain distant from keg – whilst simultaneously offering gentle encouragement to any versions of the old enemy which appear to have mended their evil ways.

Basically, if deemed to have sufficient beer-loving merit, certain kegged beers could be invited to The Great British Beer Festival... guests.

Not fellow exhibitors.


A stall or area - perhaps named something like 'Guest Zone' or 'Twilight Zone' or 'Friendly Visitors From Space' or 'The Third Way' or 'Our Quirky Cousins' or 'Keg's Last Chance Saloon' - could be given over to the concept of reborn keg... and CAMRA could simultaneously remain entirely independent of it. No values would be betrayed, no code re-written, there'd be no need for embarrassment, explanation or confusion.

Basically, CAMRA could make it clear that whilst CAMRA is firmly for Real Ale, the Great British Beer Festival is open to ALL GOOD BEER.

10 years ago, Real Ale was the only good beer.

Things have been developing rather rapidly since then, and a gesture like this would quickly abort the need for any further parting of the ways between what have become two needlessly isolated camps.

Let me say at this point – having a separate CAMRA-backed 'craft beer' festival (one of which does exist at present) is not the same as offering a place at the year's major beer-related event. And let us remember that's exactly how the GBBF identifies itself. As a 'beer' festival. Not a 'cask beer' festival.  Surely any event using 'Great British Beer' in its name should not have a separate craft beer festival happening down the road. Anyone arriving from Mars wanting to learn what makes British beer so great would find the two separate competing venues a bit puzzling. “Is craft beer not great beer, then?”, they might very well ask, in Martian.

It is my firm belief that the ultimate ideal for everyone (even for CAMRA) is to enjoy beer that is properly good. Regardless of how it got that way. CAMRA battled to do away with the one size fits all beer production mentality that was killing creativity during the 1970's. They need to keep that battle raging – whilst being careful to recognise a fellow combatant when one arrives, however strangely dressed they might first appear.

It seems to me that what CAMRA still do not fully realise is that they are actually responsible for the very existence of the craft beer movement.

The concise history of it reads something like this -

CAMRA flexed their muscles and forced beer to be tasty...

Our American friends went crazy over the results...

They were inspired and got super creative...

The whole world went crazy over those results.

In other words, CAMRA and Craft Beer are genetically linked. They are parent and child. The rebirth of keg is something CAMRA should be taking credit for, not fighting against.

The very involvement of keg in this new movement is actually more out of accident than design. Keg simply became involved because America, where all the fevered experimentation initially kicked off, doesn’t really do cask. Most of the USA is too hot to keep cask beer in good condition and besides that they've always preferred their brews chilled.

Keg, simply put, comes naturally to Americans. It is not, nor has it ever been their devil.

Ask a US craft beer enthusiast what their enemy is and they'd almost certainly say 'Big Beer', by which they'd mean bland corporate beer, or in other words – they have exactly the same perception of the enemy as CAMRA did when it was first formed.

Because boring beer is the true devil. It always has been.

Good beer has always been the messiah.

Cask, keg, bottle or can. Beautifully brewed beer is what we want, and what we will all continue to strive for, together or apart.

It just seems to me that 'together' makes a huge amount of sense, and 'apart' makes absolutely none at all.

CAMRA champions Real Ale, be it from bottle or cask. They always should. May that never change.

But the Great British Beer Festival should showcase all good beer, and CAMRA should open the door to some guests who share so many of their ideals, but also have a few different ideas too.

Good beer in kegs wasn't around ten years ago.

It is now.

Now we have two entirely different versions of fantastic British beer.

Let's all join forces and really show off.

Let's really show the world just how good this country is at creating beer.

British Cask and proper British keg, side by side, would surely make one hell of a spectacle.

A mouthwatering statement to the globe which we can all reunite behind.

Now that really would be a 'great' festival.

The greatest beer festival in all human history. And no other nation could say otherwise.

The most important thing is that CAMRA doesn't need to change in order for this to happen.

Not one bit.

The next time it throws its giant annual party, all CAMRA needs to do is add a guest list.

The results could be quite extraordinary.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Still Great, But Needs A Haircut.

By the 1970's the Edinburgh International Festival was the the daddy of it's kind. It could rightfully claim to be the greatest arts event in the world at that time.

So many thought it very mysterious when in 1974 - at the very height of this success - huge numbers of people grouped together to form an alternative arts festival in very same city.

Why was this? Why would you create a brand new arts festival when the biggest in the world is already on your doorstep?

More importantly - why did this new alternative festival quickly grow to become even bigger than the Goliath it was meant to challenge?

I'm talking, of course, about the Edinburgh Fringe - which has independently become the biggest single arts festival in the entire world.

The reasons behind its creation were actually quite simple. This evolution happened because those plucky upstarts clearly believed that the original festival - in spite of its enormous size - was not catering to all tastes, and was unfairly marginalising certain groups who felt they needed - and deserved - an equal voice.

Sound familiar, my beer loving friends?

Of course it does.

Look, let me first say this. Yesterday's trade session at The Great British Beer Festival 2014 was indeed 'great'. There was no sense of impending doom which many would have predicted. Lots of 'craft-centric' breweries were present with certain of their brews (served only from casks, naturally) and with forward-looking firms like Oakham and Salopian winning medals nobody could argue that the door is still entirely closed on progress.

But I'm going to argue it anyway.

Because I can't help it.

Because the noisier and more gigantic this giant festival grows over the years, the more I feel the sense that it needs to quiet down and get a haircut.

It needs a fringe.

By not allowing the craft beer movement to showcase itself - in the way it would choose to - the GBBF is effectively only presenting a version of what is great about beer. To my eyes, it's the version which is currently less representative of what's exciting about British beer. If anything, The Great British Beer Festival already IS the fringe in that respect, and it's the new mainstream which is being left out in the cold.

It's kind of ironic. The Campaign For Real Ale, who run this giant sideshow, were once the plucky rebels themselves.

But if it continues with it's Craft-wary approach, CAMRA will only succeed in emulating its own vision of 'the enemy' - a dominant group which forcibly influences and controls the way in which we all drink our beer.

In short - CAMRA is in danger of becoming the very same kind of beast which it was created to destroy.

In the bad old days (which CAMRA fought so hard to change) the industry standard was "bland keg or nothing". But having won that long fight against a lack of choice, CAMRA are now being every bit as restrictive about what should be acceptable to drinkers. Even after 'bland keg' has been lovingly reinvented by consciousness brewers with abundant talent. 'Bland keg' is now 'craft keg', and the latter is often utterly delicious.

Yet, still it remains "Cask or nothing" and even worse -

"Cask or it's not proper beer."

Most people reading this know that such claims are no longer accurate. 

That kind of terminology felt right about ten years ago. It stopped feeling right about five years ago.

Cask is no longer the only delivery method which 'proper' beer drinkers believe in. Any claim to the contrary is simple myth making. It's spin. It's smoke and mirrors or the Emperors new clothes. Unless CAMRA acknowledge the passing of time, unless they embrace the continuing evolution of beer, all we will have had is a straight swap of demon for demon.

There is a legacy at stake here. A great legacy, which stands at risk of being forever lost or undermined.

So - I'm calling out the heroes.

Those same heroes who saved us all from poor beer in the first place.

We need them to don their capes and Lycra tights now more than ever before. They need to keep doing what they always have been doing - showing us mortals what to do. Teaching us all which way we should go. We have grown accustomed to looking to them for direction. But right now, they're using an outdated map, and thousands of decent beer loving folk are being given no alternative but to find their own way.

It doesn't have to be like this.

I'm sure everyone would be happy to have CAMRA continue to lead the way, they've done so with aplomb for decades. But the reality is that unless that old map is updated, and soon, I fear fewer and fewer people will feel sufficiently confident that theirs remains the lead to follow.

So, CAMRA, you have two real options...

1: Stop behaving like your old enemy and allow these new ideas to sing. Take away the need for a rival 'fringe' which would grow independently mighty and threaten the 'Greatness' of your own festival. Get craft keg on the list for 2015 and win back a whole lot of friends and fans. Simple.

2: Carry on as you are. There are already 'craft beer festivals' gaining in popularity each year, one will inevitably evolve into the main alternative event on a national level. Let the disgruntled card carrying members continue to drift away - when they'd really prefer to stay. Heartbreaking and avoidable. 

That's how I see it - I know I'm one among many.

I hope common sense can prevail and that all lovers of fine beer can rejoin as one before very long.

Whilst CAMRA remain dominant, it's up to them to take the lead on this. I love to see them do that.

We have them to thank for where we are today. The dark past is long past, and CAMRA made it so.

It's up to them now to decide whether they want to remain as influential in the future.


Tuesday, 29 July 2014

My Cure For Twitter Jitters.

I'm writing this blog entry on my phone.

Now there's a sentence you wouldn't have read twenty years ago!

It's perfectly true though, all thanks to an 'app' version of Blogger which (theoretically) makes it 'simple to blog on the go' - for whatever reason you might feel the need to do such a thing.

Those aforementioned twenty years ago, "blogging on the go" might have been little more than a coded expression for using the toilet at a motorway service station. Nowadays it means broadcasting random personal thoughts via telephones. Does that imply progress, I wonder? Both definitions involve letting out crap, I suppose.

Anyway, this is just a quick service station toilet visit - partly to test this new technology, but chiefly to announce that my Twitter 'handle' has changed from @BottledBeerYear to @RealMarkDexter

This change has happened for various reasons, but it's mostly a way to reduce the amount of times I have to explain my username to those who don't know about this website (and the secret love of fine beer which it so willingly betrays!)

It makes absolutely no difference to you lot - the Twitter account is exactly the same in every other way - it's really just like a new address for the same old house, but apparently after making such slight changes it's considered polite to simply let folk know about it.

Which you do. Now.

So, if I can work out how to actually post something from this new app, I guess I'll go right ahead and do it.

Which makes me wonder if 'posting' is now the service station equivalent of 'pulling the chain'?

I'll let you be the judge of that.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Let Google Do The School Run.

The folks at Google get a lot of things right.

For a start, they don't work for Facebook – which is possibly the single best idea any technically-minded humanoid could ever have.

Other good things they've done include the inexplicably legal snooping tool 'Google Earth', their search engine is clearly reasonably popular too, and personally I also prefer their web browser Chrome which, thanks to its 'Incognito' setting, allows me to indulge my passion for Barry Manilow videos without a single other person in my household ever having a clue.

But like all successful companies from this (third) 3D Age, even the mighty Google can make the odd catastrophic blunder, and the Self Driving Car (further details of which were announced today) is just the latest turkey to jump the fence of Google's funny farm.

As someone who likes to keep the door ajar for all things sci-fi, you might have thought I would welcome such futuristic vision, especially when it comes from a company with a proven track record in technology development. The problem here is that Google clearly never sent out the memo reminding their staff that certain 'futuristic visions' are supposed to remain as precisely that. They are not meant to actually happen. I mean, we're not really meant to go on holiday with robots, it's just a handy way of making movies feel edgy and dark. What today's announcement shows is that some overexcited puppies at Google see the likes of Skynet from the Terminator franchise as some sort of corporate goal - as opposed to the nightmarish cautionary tale that the screenwriters intended - and these same little wag-tailed dogs are actively endeavouring to make sure all that horrible scary stuff really does happen.

Basically, today's news update from Google's Attention Seeking Division tells us that (contrary to earlier news updates) Google are not going to adapt previously built vehicles, but are to build their own child maimers right from scratch.

Let's be clear. These cars will have no pedals, no steering wheels, and no other controls whatsoever except for a single 'Stop/Go' button.

Read that sentence again and then imagine tomorrow's school run.

Now, safety is obviously paramount in the minds of these Google pups, but that shouldn't be a problem because computers never go wrong. Especially not one's running software created by Google.

Stop laughing and consider this.

You get into cars without controls all the time. You've been doing it throughout your entire life.

It's called being a passenger.

Almost every week of our lives we entrust our destiny into the hands of ultra-fallable human beings, many of whom will have crashed a car at least once before you settle yourself into the seat beside them.

Wouldn't it feel just a little bit safer to be entrusting your life into the hands of a series of massively powerful, state-of-the-art microchips, all working in tandem to achieve what for them is an infinitely simple task – and each of them doing this whilst simultaneously monitoring each other's efficiency and performance every inch of the way?

Well, if you think that scenario might appeal more, let me run a quick scenario...

You are driving along (being driven along?) in your Self Drive Google Car, which is incapable of error. Suddenly, up ahead, a human-driven car veers onto your side of the road – driving the wrong way on a collision course directly toward you. The driver of the vehicle seems unconscious and is unlikely to take steps to avoid the collision with your car, which will happen in seconds.

What does your Google car do?

Burdened with the extra imperative 'never to make a mistake', does it move to the left and mount the pavement – on which pedestrians are walking? Does it veer to the right – into the path of oncoming traffic? Or does it make neither of these two risky choices and elect instead for the only option which leaves it blameless at the subsequent enquiry – namely to make an emergency stop.

By choosing the least 'wrong' option – the result is that you die, so do your two kids and the driver of the oncoming car – but the Google car did absolutely nothing wrong and Google's reputation is safe.

A genuine human tragedy, and an absolute triumph of tech.

Putting an error proof car onto roads with cars which make mistakes all the time is simply not going to work. To me, that's obvious.

The only thing Google can be thinking is that one day only their cars will be on our roads. This, I agree, would hugely reduce the number of accidents on those roads – possibly to zero – but taking a seat in a car without controls is going to be a giant leap for humankind, way more of a leap than it took this turkey to fly the fence of Google's funny farm, and can any of us really picture ourselves letting Google take our kids to school any time soon?

I just can't see it happening. And frankly I don't even mean 'yet'. I mean ever.

Ultimately though, amongst all the horror that lurks beneath the surface of today's announcement from Google, one aspect above all really got me fighting to keep my breakfast down.

They are going to give these non-controllable self-driving cars 'smiley faces' in order to “help people accept the technology”.


Amazing that nobody ever thought to paint smiles on electric chairs.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

There's More To Life Than Great Beer. (Right?)

The last time I posted something here was in the late 17th century, during the latter days of the reign of King Charles II.

Or at least that's how it feels... and lately I've started to wonder why.

Having enthusiastically churned out around 160 reviews of beers from across the world, why would I suddenly lose the will?

It's not as though I've stopped getting excited about beer. After all, it's arguable that things have never been so exciting in the ever-widening world of brewing - as my three most recent acquisitions (pictured above) demonstrate with mouth-watering panache.

And it's not as though I've grown tired of writing either. During this period of blog silence I've been tinkering away with screenplays, revisiting old novel manuscripts (pretty decent one of them is, too) as well as knocking out the odd beer descriptor for any breweries which ask me to do so.

So what's my problem?

Well, after a lot of thought, I suspect I may have found the answer...

I think there may be more to life than beer.

I won't blame you for reading that last sentence three or four times, I know it's hard to compute.

But I have reason to believe it must be true because very often, when I sit down to extrapolate my views on yet another golden beer from the South East of England, I find I'm actually suppressing a more urgent need to talk about something else entirely. This suppressed 'something' comes in many forms, depending on what's going on in the world, it really could be anything, even something which - just imagine - hasn't the merest connection with beer at all.

So, having had this realisation - I've decided to shake things up and make some changes to this site. I'm going to break free from the shackles of my own design concept and use this quiet corner of the Webosphere to bleat on about whatever the heck happens to be on my mind. Who knows, maybe that other side of my life - that which involves prancing around in front of film cameras - might find a voice here. It seems that my rather odd profession can sometimes be of mild interest to many of you humanoids, so maybe it wouldn't hurt to share some of my 'on-set' experiences.

Maybe something will make me laugh or get me raging and I'll feel sufficiently compelled to share it. I don't really know how this will go, to be honest.

Beer will continue to feature, that's a given. Some beers are just too good to ignore. As things stand, the hyper intensity of creative energy, the abundant raw talent, and the sheer hard graft going on within the brewing industry will guarantee that I continue to get vocal from time to time.

But the unfortunate flipside of these unprecedented levels of brewing endeavour is that there is now way too much beer out there, and a lot of it simply doesn't inspire. So from now on only the brews that genuinely raise my spirits will be given air time here. Expect to find brews from Mikkeller, Avery, Evil Twin, Magic Rock, Kernel, Thornbridge, BrewDog, Russian River, Marble, Angel City, Cigar City, Beavertown, Sly Fox, Bear Republic and plenty more firms that fit comfortably onto this "kind" of list.

(You know what "kind" I'm talking about. Some like to call it "Craft Beer". Others then demand a more detailed explanation of what "craft" means. Then someone fetches a shotgun because they're so sick and tired of all this aimless, soul-destroying infighting.)

Anyway, there you have it. It's official. The Bottled Beer Year is back in action, replete with fancy new bells and whistles, and henceforth it will be - rather like life itself - about much more than pleasant tasting liquid.

I hope you'll stay tuned, and maybe you'll even enjoy it.

In the meantime, I'm going back on set.

(N.B. - The beers pictured are 'Gamma Ray' American Pale Ale from Beavertown, '113 IPA' India Pale Ale from Sly Fox and 'I Beat You' Imperial IPA from Mikkeller.  Each can now be found on the High Score Chart.)