The Emperor’s New Zwanze

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A belated post about Zwanze Day 2014, hosted in London this year by The Kernel Brewery on 20 September.

I’m not entirely comfortable with pronouncing the word ‘Zwanze’ – one way sounds too much like Swansea or ‘onesie’ (and I think Zwanze Onesies would be the definitive indicator that we’ve reached ‘peak craft’), and the other way of saying it just sounds like a word for futuristic swans. However you say it, it’s the name given to the day celebrated annually when a unique beer brewed by Cantillon is released and enjoyed at various locations around the world, with all kegs being tapped at 9pm Belgian time, wherever it is in the world it’s being tapped.

This year was the first time I’d attended a Zwanze event. I’d been to limited-release-beer launches before though, so I expected a heaving crush of people swarming around a tiny bar, each with a camera-flashing phone in one hand and a artisanal teku glass sloshing enamel-stripping megabeer in the other. I was especially concerned given how busy The Kernel Brewery bar can be on Saturdays (for the Bermondsey Beer Mile) that it could be chaos.

The reality was a very civilised affair, far more calm than a Saturday day session. This a limited list, after all, of people who had registered by email for a glass of this singular beer. It was a simple and effective system: register by email and receive a flyer on arrival entitling you to a glass of Zwanze, so no worries about it running out whilst you’re queuing.

The story of this year’s Zwanze can be found here. It’s a lovely story, and the beer itself has a very considered yet playful construction that really embodies the mind of its creator. Briefly, it’s a three-year-aged, blended, dry-hopped gueuze, blended with kriek and dry hopped again with Bramling X. Reducing it to a sentence does the beer a injustice though, because the canvas it paints across your palate is so much more than its constituent parts.

The colour alone, a mahogany-rich maroon with carmine edges, thrills the eyes. The sharp aroma of citrus pith, pepper, linseed oiled cricket bats, leather and overripe blackberries is, at first, baffling. You need a taste to complete the puzzle it presents. The first sip is an artillery barrage of harsh, flat, funk, wrapped in juicy, tart luscious raspberries and white grapes, thicken by the thick cut shred of orange peel in marmalade that gets stuck in your teeth. The finish, more of a crescendo really, is a machine-gun bitterness that sprays around the palate and dries everything it touches with lemon pith, apple skin and wood. Oh, and it is sour – sour like the sky is blue – but it was the dryness that really stuck with me, remarkable and utterly brow-furrowing in its assertiveness.

Of course, with every event like this, there is plenty of commentary online, both positive and negative. Almost universally positive from the people there, and a smattering of negativity from those that aren’t. It’s just the usual stuff, from honest jealousy to more bitter sentiments about the Emperor’s New Clothes, and whether the people attending can fairly judge a beer they’ve registered to try and pay a premium for.

I handed over a paltry £3.50 to taste a third of a pint of that incredible beer, from an exquisite glass in great company in one of the greatest breweries in the world. Considering the beer’s story, the process that made it and the experience I had while drinking it, I fail to see how I got anything less than the best value glass of beer in the world for that money.

Still, it’s a common debate in craft beer that goes way beyond Zwanze, which is normally universally loved every year, and it’s a debate that I struggle with. I can’t logically argue with the notion of people enjoying a beer more because they think they should, or because they’ve paid more for it. Equally, it can easily be argued that such limited release or rare beers can genuinely be astonishingly good. I actually laughed aloud with how good Zwanze was. It tripped across my palate, somersaulted into my brain and hit the necessary synapses to release a laugh of delight from my lips (Fou’Foune prompted a similar reaction, but more from my incredulity at just how sherbety and juicy it is).

I grow concerned that with the maturity of our craft beer scene there is also a steady increase in cynicism, not just the healthy kind that keeps you financially solvent, but the kind that closes one’s mind. The beer itself was a stone cold masterpiece. There can be no doubt about that whatsoever.

Whilst it used to worry me that I too was getting all caught up in the moment and not judging these rare and limited release beers as critically as I should, lately I find myself asking a different question: what if the Emperor’s New Clothes are actually, you know, incredible? What if the reason these people can’t see the Emperor’s New Clothes is because they weren’t there to see them?

Of course, there’s another side to this – criticism of tickers. For me it comes back to The Seeking, something that, more and more, I’m convinced is a very different mindset to that of ticking. I don’t have a problem with ticking – for the most part it’s merely the search of new beers and what they taste like – but it definitely has a dark side to it: those that turn up, tick, leave; or simply wish to be the Mayor of their favourite beer. All harmless enough of course, but for some tickers, it is the tick that motivates them, not the experience that comes with it.

As I grow as a beer drinker and as a writer, it is that concept to which I try to hold fast, no matter what: seek the experience, not the tick. That way, if the experience is this good, then the Emperor’s new clothes look just fine to me.

Author: Chris Hall

London-based freelance beer writer and blogger. Member of the British Guild of Beer Writers. Co-author of 'Craft Beer: 100 Best Breweries in The World' On Twitter @ChrisHallBeer.

11 thoughts on “The Emperor’s New Zwanze”

  1. A beer is worth what you’re willing to pay for it. Folk who complain endlessly about the cost of craft beer have a simple option available to them: shut up and don’t drink it. 🙂 If they have a go at you for paying the equivalent of £10.50 a pint then they’re probably just being resentful killjoys.

    Hey, I feel resentful sometimes… it irks me that people are doing these things… drinking these beers… but that is only because I can’t, I’m not there, I don’t have the time (or the money at the moment). But I try to keep it to myself. Gaaah… Some day… things like this, and Borefts, and CBC, and…

    And you’re right – it is often about the event, the places, and the people more than the beer. The beer is just the thread that holds it all together.

    (Not to say there are no concerns to be had about price. There are cases where things are far too cheap… and sure, cases where things seem far too expensive… if folk have a problem then they can just “vote with their feet”. It’s that simple. In the end “the market” will decide.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There are a few things that temper my enthusiasm for pricey limited edition beers. For starters I’m not very flush at the minute, secondly I’ve been disappointed before, and thirdly I’ve had world class beer in ordinary pubs at ordinary prices.

      That’s not to say the beer wasn’t great, but it’s not someting I’d get excited about.

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      1. Budgeting the beer geek lifestyle is a problem everyone has, and it’s definitely the most frustrating reason for not being able to go to these things. I agree that being disappointed can definitely turn you off doing things like this, and I have been disappointed before, which is perhaps why a subsequent positive experience feels all the better. Also I think finding “world class beer in ordinary pubs at ordinary prices” is probably the most rewarding beer experience anyone can have. Being surprised and feeling spoiled by something easily available really is a joy.

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    2. I agree with you on people voting with their feet deciding pricing.

      I also think the FOMO (fear of missing out) that encourages habitual use of social media can exacerbate feelings of missing out on big events elsewhere. Still, you wouldn’t know how much fun people were having if a part of you didn’t want to read what they are saying anyway.

      But yes, the beer is the thread that holds it all together and keeps us coming back. 100%

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    3. ” In the end “the market” will decide.”

      Agreed on this. I’m not the biggest fan of the “market forces will solve everything” philosophy (understatement), but craft beer seems to be a pretty good example of a well-functioning market: there are very low barriers to entry on the supply side, and almost no consumer lock-in on the demand side. I’m always surprised by people who bang on constantly about how much “craft” breweries price-gouge gullible hipsters for poor quality beer yet for some reason haven’t bothered to tap into this apparently straightforward path to a life of easy luxury themselves.

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  2. I have to agree that it was probably the best ‘value for money’ glass of beer that I’ve had this year and probably one, if not the best, that I’ve ever had. I’ve never seen so many people linger over a third of a pint for so long, and considering the price that must say something on it’s own.
    It would be ridiculous to say that we were tasting the rarity, which may be the case with some beers, as what we were tasting was simply delicious. I was fortunate enough to get a last minute invite, however you have made me wonder if I would have been cynical about the whole thing had I not been there. I’d like to think not as there were people whose opinions I respect and judgement I trust there, good beer people having a good evening, but it’s given me food for thought. An interesting and thought provoking piece.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks Justin. It was a truly incredible beer, but we only know that and can say it with confidence because we were there. Had I not been there, I would have taken people’s comments with a pinch of salt and decided it was an 7 or 8 out of 10 beer, which wouldn’t have been fair, I think.

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  3. One of my biggest beer-related annoyances is people who insist on rubbishing a beer or beer event which they didn’t sample/attend (and how can you judge the quality of a product you did not sample?). Occasionally these people will confess that they were envious of those who did attend, but more often they don’t. And maybe they weren’t envious, which is completely fine.

    Sometimes these people have attended another event which ran concurrently and wish to tell everyone that the event that _they_ attended was so much better than the one you attended.

    Sometimes they just want to tell you that you got massively ripped off or that you don’t know how to enjoy yourself/what good beer is/where you should really be drinking.

    What these comments amount to, ultimately, is a dose of unsolicited negativity. If someone is having such a fantastic time why do they find it necessary to take the time to criticise another person’s sense of enjoyment in something. Why not, you know, just NOT take a big shit on someone else’s good time? Could you not find anything better to do with your time than that, Funcrusher?

    Emma

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is pretty much a post in its own right: people should never underestimate how important it is to Not Be A Dick. That one-upmanship you mention is definitely a common problem, along with name-dropping, label-dropping (‘you mean you haven’t had the XXXX Bovril BA version?’) and so on. It’s not the right attitude, but it’s an attitude that I unfortunately expect to find at events like Zwanze. This time I was very glad to be proven wrong.

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