OK, after getting most of the political and industry stuff out of the way yesterday, let’s get on with celebrating the best of beer and pubs. Remember, this is totally subjective and based on my experiences, and isn’t trying to be any kind of definitive guide.(Note: because this is a review of the whole of 2009, Let’s Be Nice on Pete Brown’s Beer Blog Month is suspended for this post.)
BREWER OF THE YEAR Winner: John Keeling at Fuller’s Because in an industry that’s riven with divisions, he sets an example that every brewer, large or small, should aspire to. To large breweries, he shows that being part of a PLC whose fortunes rely on TV-advertised brands doesn’t have to stifle experimentation and innovation. He’s leading the way with learning about how ageing affects beer. He refuses to call this innovation – he prefers ‘rediscovery’. Also, he’s the model head brewer as brand ambassador, touring the country with informative and entertaining tastings and jokes so old they were first told over a pint of Egyptian bouza. And to micro/craft brewers, he’s an example of professionalism and rigour, who wholeheartedly supports a micro scene that keeps him on his toes. Fuller’s has a perfect core range of beers – a malty premium ale in Pride, an often-overlooked hoppier session ale in Chiswick, a glorious finisher in ESB, a summer ale, and a stable of seasonals, plus the legendary vintage ale, and much more. All this, and he’s a Fall fan. (We’ll let him off being a Man United supporter.) If your name is Stuart Ross, please look away now…
BREWER OF THE YEAR Runner-up: Stuart Ross, Crown Brewery, Sheffield Stuart works alone with a three-barrel plant in a cellar beneath a pub. He does everything single-handed, from cask washing, to bottling, to designing labels and pump clips. And the beers he turns out in his understated fashion are too good to be overlooked any longer. He saw a load of chillies being sold off cheap in Morrisons so he bought them on impulse and created Ring of Fire, a 10% chilli beer that has a subtle taste of chilli pepper before the heat gradually builds. He does a nice range of session beers, and a variety of fully-hopped IPAs. His Smoked Oktoberfest is the best beer I’ve ever tasted with Indian food. And the Damson Porter he created with Zak Avery is divine. I could go on. Stuart just brews what he feels like brewing, constantly experimenting. I don’t think he knows how good a brewer he is. I’m scared how big his head will grow when he does realise, so I just hope I don’t help create a monster by giving him the recognition he deserves. So no one tell him what I just said. OK Stuart, you can come back now.
BEER OF THE YEAR Winner: Wye Valley HPA (Hereford Pale Ale)
Because a recent post by ImpyMalting made me realise that, along with many beer bloggers, when it comes to beer appreciation I’m getting seduced down a cul-de-sac of the extreme, eclectic and experimental, whereas in reality most of my drinking consists of session pints. Because HPA is a very good session pint, quenching and citrusy and refreshing and satisfying. Because it’s very smartly branded and presented and makes ale look cool. Because when my father-in-law was dying in February, Liz and I shuttled between the hospital and the Angel Hotel in Abergavenny and the perfectly served HPA kept us going, a quiet moment of relaxation and contemplation in the middle of the stress and grief, an escape, a tonic. Because after the funeral, we and our friends held a wake for Eddie in the Angel, and we drank HPA until we could drink no more. Because when you ask someone what was the best beer they ever had, they tell you all about the context of it, not the flavour or the ingredients, and this beer reminded me of that in 2009. Great beer isn’t about what’s in the glass; it’s about so much more.
BEER OF THE YEARRunner-up: Crown Brewery HPA (Hillsborough Pale Ale) special 13% version You couldn’t get two more different beers, and the fact they’re both called HPA is a rather weird coincidence. Hillsborough Pale Ale is a 3.8% session beer. One day, CrownBrewerStu decided to see what would happen if he brewed a 13% version of it, which he did in a home brew bucket. When I first tasted it, my jaw hit the floor. This is a stunning barley wine, rich in caramel sweetness, rounded and not too harsh, a hint of sherry. I’ve no idea how he got the balance and depth and smoothness of it at this strength. If Brew Dog released this beer it would – rightly – be celebrated around the world. I made Stu give me the last of it for our Christmas party last week. Hopefully this post will force him to make some more and sell it at a premium price in 750ml cork and wire finished bottles. And hopefully he’ll get someone in to do a really gorgeous label.
PUB OF THE YEAR Winner: The Sheffield Tap, Sheffield Train Station I’ve only been once. It’s only been open a couple of weeks. But it’s not very often a pub takes your breath away. If only more big pub operators had Thornbridge’s vision, thoughtfulness and bravery. If only more small operators had their scope and access to investment capital.
PUB OF THE YEAR Honourable Mention: The Hillsborough Hotel, Sheffield For the beers, for the welcome, for the bacon sandwiches, for the quiz, for Pie Night, and for offering the best value accommodation in Sheffield. Eventually, I’ll get used to the trams and won’t be woken up by them before dawn.
BEER BLOGGER OF THE YEAR Winner: By a country mile – and he’s really going to hate this – Cooking Lager! No one knows who he is. Someone thought he might be me, which I was flattered by. But is he a beer geek playing a role, venting frustration? Or could he be for real? Every now and again he slips up and reveals that he knows more about beer than he lets on, but mostly, he ruthlessly skewers the pretentions of beer geeks and reminds us that, at the end of the day, it’s just beer. I depend on his tirades against pongy ales, odes to Lout and tales of his eternal struggle to stay on the right side of the Ladysqueeze to keep me grounded. And his review of my books, where he compared the relative merits of Man Walks into a Pub and Three Sheets to the Wind not on the merits of language, or insight, or research, but on their ability to prop up his wobbly sofa, is something I’ll always treasure. If it’s an invention, it’s a genius one. If he’s for real… I don’t know whether to admire him or fear him.
BEER BLOGGER OF THE YEAR Runner-up: Boak and Bailey I picked this not on who is the most prolific, or who uses the medium of blogging to its best advantage (that would be Young Dredge). As this is subjective, I’ve chosen it purely on what blogs I find myself clicking on most often from my blog roll, who I enjoy reading most. Boak and Bailey clearly know their stuff but write with a beautiful simplicity and understatedness, and a constant sense of exploration and discovery, across a refreshingly broad range of beers and topics. If you haven’t read them before, start with this brilliant discussion on pubs and class.
BEER BLOGGER OF THE YEAR Honourable mentions: Runner-up spot was a tough call: the other blogs I habitually click through to whenever I see there’s a new post include Pencil & Spoon of course, Woolpack Dave, Tandleman, and the thoughtful, beautifully written, lyrical ImpyMalting. Pump Clip Parade for a laugh, and ATJ is doing some lovely stuff too. We’ve got such diversity and richness now! Oh yes – and the Beer Widow of course. God help me if I don’t give ‘er indoors a richly deserved mention for sticking a long-suffering toe into the blogging waters.
SLOPBUCKET OF THE YEAR Winner: Easy – the Daily Mail. Look, why don’t you just fuck off?
SLOPBUCKET OF THE YEAR Runner-up: The BBC We expect it of the Mail. They’re the pantomime villain in the war against neo-Prohibitionism. But the Beeb website is just as guilty of demonizing alcohol, and beer in particular, as anyone else. This post from yesterday is typical – if you read to the end, expert testimony from Ian Gilmore – hardly a friend to the alcohol industry – explicitly contradicts the assertion in the headline. But as Jay Brooks points out, most people only read the headline and first para, meaning the truth gets buried. Mostly I’m with Stephen Fry – I love the BBC. It’s one of the reasons I love Britain, one of the best things about our culture. But we expect and deserve much, much better than this continued, willful distortion of the truth about our national drink from an organisation that’s largely trusted for its balance and impartiality. Shame on you.
SLOPBUCKET OF THE YEAR Honourable mentions The rest of the British news media. As I said in a recent Publican piece, when you’ve got everyone from the Mail to the Guardian saying the same thing about you, you know you’ve replaced tobacco, hoodies, staffordshire bull terriers and Swine Flu as the moral panic of the day.
So that’s my take on the year. I’d love to hear yours. Thank you for reading me in 2009. Thank you for your kind comments when I get it right, and thank you also for picking me up when I get something wrong. 2010 is going to be a great year for beer. I’m going to make an effort to remember why I started writing about it in the first place. I’m going to continue to learn more about beer, from brewers and drinkers and other writers. I’m going to do everything I can to evangelise beer outside our cloistered, beer geeky world, to carry on the war against media shite and neo-prohibitionism, to call out foolish behaviour in the industry and to celebrate beer as it continues to emerge and prosper as the most exciting drink around. Merry Christmas!