Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Beer vs. Wine: tell me what's your flava

Some beers

"That'll be six pounds please."

"What? Six pounds! For a bottle of beer? What's it made out of? Gold?"

"No, sir. The bottle is made of recycled glass. Oh, you mean the beer? No, not gold, actually, I mean hypothetically if it were it'd be worth about seventeen thousand pounds and be guaranteed to cause your insides irreparable damage. This is, of course, assuming that you have such a large amount of disposable cash to hand."

"Do you know what, I'll have a bottle of Peroni."

Of course, I'd never be that condescending, never mind erudite. Though as a manager of a bar specialising in craft beer, the above response has certainly crossed my mind more than a few times. However, it serves to illustrate a relatively new phenomenon: the explosion of the beer scene and the subsequent flooding of the British market with 'craft' beer has meant consumers are being asked to cough up a lot of dough for their precious beer. Even if it's brewed up the road. However, charge someone £15 for a bottle of wine and they rarely bat an eyelid; charge them £6 for a bottle of beer and they look at you like you'd just claimed Margaret Thatcher was the best thing that ever happened to British politics (too soon?).

'It's all about the ABV!' some of you might cry. That's Alcohol By Volume, basically a measurement of how strong an alcoholic drink is. But surely it's more than that? After all, sink three pints of, say, Jaipur at 5.9%, we'd hope you've got change from 15 bob and you'll have just passed the 10 unit mark; conversely, shell out £15 on a bottle of wine at 13.5% and guess what? You've had just over 10 units. So if it's about booze for your buck, then that's put a logical bullet in the argument.

So, why do people baulk at paying £6 for a 500ml bottle of beer but don't fear £15 for 750ml of the most average mass-produced house wine? The existing preconception seems to be: beer should be cheap, yet wine is somehow worthy of the extra markup (those elusive extra units of alcohol aside). Perhaps it's due the cultural significance we attach to it and its colourful history - the great wine plague of the 1800s, the fact that bottles of Mouton Rothschild can sell for thousands, and it's not like you'd hose someone down with a can of Fosters to celebrate (well, they might do Down Under).

But to believe this is to be a traditionalist, which I am certainly not. Beer has been brewed for far longer than wine and some brave authors have even speculated that the advancement of civilization was due to our thirst for this most primitive of alcohols. Beer can also be a good deal more complex than most give it credit for. I won't go as far as Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at Brooklyn, who says that "wine has but one ingredient - grapes". But I know what he's getting at. With beer you have the malted barley (or other grain), the hops and the yeast, the varieties and quantities of which can be changed to make almost endless combinations. That's before we get to the roasting of the malts and the degrees of darkness. It certainly seems like, if anything, there's a lot more control over the flavour that can be achieved.

Wine, of course, has the elusive quality of 'terroir' - the idea that the land imparts a unique quality to wine, the special combination of soil, climate and geography. But when you take into account the story that some of the world's greatest wine critics thought that white wine dyed red was red wine (try saying that five times fast!) then you'd forgive me for being a bit skeptical about anyone's ability to identify something as esoteric as 'terroir'. To be honest, I'm a little prejudiced against wine because of the snobbery that exists about it and the absurd value some people attach to it. I can only hope beer doesn't go the same way.

So, like all great diplomats, I'm going to open a bottle of claret, pour a pint of ale, and go sit on the fence. Anyone who has tried a lot of beer and wine (I've also had the pleasure of working in a region specific wine shop in Paris) knows they are both extremely diverse and can conjure up all sorts of flavours and sensations. If you're drinking them on their own, then it's down to personal preference. When it comes to pairing with food, then beer can give wine a serious run for its money. But that's a story for another day. And I'm feeling rather sleepy from this beer and wine combination...

What do you think? Is the price of wine justified, where the cost of beer isn't? Or should we get rid of old habits, and swap our Burgundy for a Brooklyn?

Great places to pick up a bottle (of either!):
The Beer Moth, 70 Tib Street, Northern Quarter - the name says it all
Tiny's Tipple, Wilbraham Road, Chorlton - has a great selection of both sides of the fence
Reserve Wines, Burton Road, West Didsbury - great selection of wines & a carefully selected fridge of beers & ales