Recently (i.e. as of about 10 minutes before winding up the PC to write this) I thought about the cultural and social aspect of beer blogging and beer appreciation and was struck by how there didn’t appear to be any similarity with other ‘good’ food or beverage categories at the moment.
Good beer appears to be blazing so many trails at the moment. Speaking to the here and now, but also looking ahead – to what is going to be new, different or completely ground breaking. Ahead of the curve but also with an eye to the past. And being vocal about it.
Something perhaps speaks to the “everyman” quality of beer (and that is not to say that every beer is for every person or vice versa) but do other products attract such passion, opinion or strength of debate as beer? Are they any less deserving of a fan base? If not, are they as vocal? If so, are they getting their message across?
One of my other interests is baking bread and I do wonder at why the same level of social interest is not attracted by baking as beer and brewing is given that I make both at home. I also buy, where possible or inclined, independently or ‘hand crafted’ examples of both.
Let’s be frank. The ‘good’ beer revolution (I’m just going to say “good” beer and not get into the tortuous definition of what ‘this’ or ‘that’ qualifies as craft beer – or indeed deserves, the term or not) is an amazing and welcome resurgence of comparatively small brewers producing a high quality product, geared towards seasonality, the quality of the base ingredients or redefining or reinterpreting styles of beer that is almost unparalleled in many other areas of food production.
But what about bread?
Surely, I hear you say, this is hand crafted artisanal beer we are talking about here! Not your everyday bread!
I suspect that many in the beer appreciation world probably have a similarly high standard of appreciation for any other food product created with the same attention to detail, quality and devotion as the art (and science) of making good bread. Some may even be as passionate about good bread (or other food) as they are about good beer. But something clicked when I began thinking about why we go to such lengths to produce or when purchasing: chase down, categorise, quantify, vilify, eulogise or share on social media the product that is good beer compared to bread, or any other “hand crafted” food stuff?
I considered bread because it is on one hand commonplace and yet on the other – good bread can be very hard to find indeed. A high percentage of most of the mass market bread in the UK is (by any standard) frankly terrible or at best bland and is geared towards commercial production and finding the cheapest way of making water stand upright. Remind you of anything?
But search out “the real bread campaign” and you will find an interest group as impassioned and focused as that of CAMRA. There are people out there who have championed good bread and good bread made by skilled craftspeople. Independent hand craft bakeries are now more commonplace and if you seek it out, you will find it. They have also improved the choice for bread and availability, but still arguably have a very long way to go.
Supermarkets are offering increasingly better choice in bread, but again, what they do sell as “sourdough” or “hand made” for example is often nothing of the sort and is tantamount to passing off. Again though, one can see the similarity with beer: large commercial interests redefining their existing products, or offering a substandard product marketed as “hand crafted” to gouge out a higher profit off the impression of being “artisanal”.
Perhaps The Real Bread Campaign is fighting a battle that CAMRA did over 30 years ago and things may get even better.
Beer is big business. Bread less so probably by an order of magnitude. But then, why should this be the case? Compare the fact that they are food stuffs made up of base ingredients – grain (malted in the case of beer), water and yeast – and more complex ingredients to create variety and interest (hops and / or additional flavourings), to be transformed by the skill of the producers into something that is so much more than the sum of their parts. The answer lies in taxation, variability and availability in ingredients, equipment and start up costs plus a host of other issues. Am I therefore comparing chalk and cheese?
As a consumer it may well be that if I go to an outstanding craft bakery I can buy an amazing pain de campagne or a rye sourdough that would put my own attempts to shame, but would it really be that much better than I could make at home and be very happy with? Could I say the same for good beer? Possibly.
But as a home brewer I’ve made (at least in my opinion) good beer, but the bar to making good bread is much lower considering the equipment, time, variable parameters and experience required compared to beer. I like the beer I make – and this may be the rub, it is the making of it that is the difference. Once dough is rising, proving and being baked – that really is it. There is no real possibility to alter, to innovate or improvise as one can with beer (think dry hopping, secondary fermentations with fruit etc.) after the product is largely made. That is where the showmanship comes into Brewing I think and sets it apart from Baking.
Will bread always be beer’s poorer cousin? I hope not. Maybe siblings in time. But I can’t imagine the same social buzz for bread as is being experienced by beer any time soon whether as an amateur producing it at home, or as a consumer . There is something to be said about the social cohesion that beer can bring or that bread is something that you break with your family.
I did however ask myself this: does the good beer community take itself too seriously? Or put another way, does it consider itself to be worth more seriousness or profile at the expense of other good food products? Should the good beer community begin to think about other “good” food?
Is the Brew master / Brewster deserving of more laurels than the Baker? Can or should bread have the same level of social notoriety or dare I say, fan worship as beer? Are we going to see bakery open days? Bakery tours? Bakery tasting rooms (with guest Bakery products also featuring)? Home Bake Camps? Bakery collaborations? Bakery takeovers? Buyouts of Independents by Big Bakeries (I’ve not heard anything about a small hand craft bakery being bought out in a £500 million share rights option by a large commercial bakery to gain access to the unparalleled marketing and distribution network that they have – but who, or indeed what can time tell!?)
In theory, probably not. Does it say something about the collective attitudes of the beer connoisseur compared to the bread lover? Probably. Are beer fans more inclined to bus spotter tendencies than bread fans? No comment. Is it that making good beer is largely more complex or expensive than making good bread? Maybe. Is beer a more exciting product than bread? Definitely (although the Great British Brew Off is yet to see the light of day and I am after all writing this with a good beer, rather than a slice of artisan bread. I do have an ale poolish on the go in the kitchen though).
I concluded that if one accepts that good bread should be something that is to be treasured and deserving of the same nurture and protection as good beer, then maybe bread needs to wake up and take a leaf out of beers book.
On behalf of good bread and good food in general though, I would ask that you consider this question:
How much did you spend last week in money and time on good beer, and how much did you spend on good bread?