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Oakes Weekly- October 28, 2006
Building a Great Beer Scene
October 28, 2006
Written by Oakes
It started with a lineup. Sadly, I was not the only one who thought that lunch at Legendary Noodle was a good idea. I must admit, their handtwirled noodles and dumpling soups are hard to resist. So instead I went a few doors down to Hawker’s Delight. Hawker food is classic Singaporean street cuisine, the kind found in street carts or hawker stalls (the forerunner to modern food courts). I ordered up some mee pok, a hodgepodgey sort of bowl with greens, broad noodles, barbeque pork, fish cakes and sprouts that manages to come together brilliantly with just a splash of soy sauce and chili paste).
I picked up the Saturday paper. (That’s right, for $5 you get a full stomach of killer food and read the Saturday paper). There was a feature on happiness and one of the articles discussed how the architecture we surround ourselves with affects our moods. The premise was simply that one of the factors in the decline in happiness levels in modern society was the proliferation of bland suburbs and cold glass office towers. To me, this is true. I prefer working amid Gastown’s funky brick buildings or in St. Paul’s Hospital’s labyrinthine depths than the soulless towers nearby. It’s true with nature as well. Offer people mountains and water and they’ll take it every time over taigan monotony or prairie dreariness. Combine the two and I simply cannot understand why anyone would move to Vancouver and live in some cookie-cutter suburb…no mountains, no water, boring buildings and asphalt everywhere…they’re on crack. It defeats the purpose of living here.
I looked out the window at the collection of buildings in my neighbourhood. Edwardian houses and 100-year-old apartment blocks punctuate post-war bungalows and gaudy newer houses that look like they belong in South Surrey or some other Godforsaken hellhole. The stores are an equally odd bunch – funny little shops like the Buddha Supply Store mingle with yuppy maternity clothes, a gallery/coffee shop, an African restaurant, a pre-war diner and an equally old butcher. There’s no plan at work here. It grew organically.
I looked at my near-empty bowl of mee pok. Not much plan there either it seemed, just a miscellany of local ingredients thrown together, but it sure tasted good. Good food and great neighbourhoods come together the same way – with a little time, the pieces of the puzzle build a series of symbiotic relationships that come to equal greater than the sum of the parts. Perhaps this is why I look at so many spiffy, polished restaurant menus and yawn. Chef takes a bunch of things that sound neat, submits them to various French verbs, and I’m expected to believe that it will be tastier than a dish evolved over time with ingredients that were born and raised together? Not saying that type of thing is going to suck but Darwinism works in the world of food, too and many of these modern dishes will never last. They’re just plain not as good as time-honoured classics. They have no hope of achieving the greatness of mapo dofu, tortilla soup or a simple breakfast crêpe with berries and cream.
Beer scenes are built the same way as anything else great. I’ve been thinking a lot of late about how great beer scenes became that way and how lesser scenes can achieve greatness of their own. I guess it starts with what one’s idea of greatness is. Just as a few big-ass skyscrapers does not make a compelling city, nor do a few big-name brewers make a compelling beer scene. A great actor will not win you Best Picture, and a great player will not bring home a championship all by himself. So while a great beer scene certainly benefits from having a superstar brewer, it also needs depth and cohesion. It needs a variety of brewers doing different things but maintaining a common sense of purpose. In fact, as Seattle shows, you don’t even really need an A-list brewery at all if you’ve got enough B-list star brewers.
But either way, you need a brewer or two good enough and creative enough to inspire others to get into the business. If all the brewers in town are brewpub chains and former homebrewers who got into the business because they had nothing better to do, you’re in trouble. That’s not to knock on the chain brewers, by the way, as they have a valuable role to fill. You need places for young brewers to cut their teeth and learn how to make beer free from QC issues. I compare Seattle with Vancouver here. We have, on occasion and from various brewers, diacetyl bombs, infected bottles, and plain old WTF? issues. We do not have a Gordon Biersch, Rock Bottom or any other big brewpub chain. Seattle has not only those, but the Ram, the Rock and McMenamin’s. I do not think this is a coincidence. Brewers may have gotten into the business after drinking beers made by Dick Cantwell or (a while back now) Fal Allen, but they didn’t necessarily apprentice under them. Beer geeks may ignore chain brewpubs but they play an important role in the development of brewing talent.
You also need some low-end micros. Ones that get tap handle and grocery store penetration beyond the reaches of most craft breweries. But these brewers must not make such boring product that they fail to sell the concept of craft beer to this wider audience they reach. In other words, if the flagship product from your big local/regional craft brewer is named “Premium Lager”, they’re not doing much of anything to help grow craft brewing in your town.
You need beer bars. Brewers won’t try anything new and cool if they won’t have anywhere to sell it. It should be noted that not every beer bar needs to strive to be the best on Earth. It does not need 100 taps and 500 bottles. It just needs to be open-minded and dedicated to rotating their taps and pushing craft beer.
For those who consider ourselves to be beer lovers, I think the beer scene you surround yourself with is part of the equation of happiness, just as the architecture, natural environment, family, and work all play a role. As a beer lover, there are things you can do to help improve your beer scene. First, bringing people together is crucial. Numbers count, since very few of us can afford to make or break a business individually. Second, look at the scene around you. What are the strengths and weaknesses. As impressed as I am with the scene there, I’m not convinced that Seattle has an A-list brewery. San Diego does, but lacks broad-based beer culture. Toronto needs a proper beer store. Many of Europe’s beer capitals could use more variety.
We can all become stewards of our local beer scenes in small ways. (For the record, in case there was some confusion about this, rating beer and posting on Internet forums does not qualify). Building greatness takes time. A great beer scene is like a great neighbourhood or a great dinner. It is made up of a myriad of independent, symbiotic relationships. The more of these you are a part of, the stronger the scene will become. Think about what you can do. Most cities have a multitude of Ratebeerians. We can do more, I think, than get together and knock back great beers.
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Building greatness takes time. A great beer scene is like a great neighbourhood or a great dinner. It is made up of a myriad of independent, symbiotic relationships. The more of these you are a part of, the stronger the scene will become.
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