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.