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Alliterative Book Review: Boak and Bailey’s ‘Brew Britannia’

Imagine if the history of rock music was done in the style
of beer writing:
“Unknown Pleasures by
Joy Division was recorded at Strawberry Studios, Stockport, between 1st
and 17th April 1979. It is 39 minutes and 24 seconds long and consists
of ten songs, which contain drums, bass, guitar, synthesisers and vocals, with
added special effects.”
There would then be an online debate about whether or not
the use of synthesisers meant that the record was ‘real indie’ or not, segueing
into a huge disagreement about whether the album should best be described as
‘indie’ or ‘goth’, or perhaps neither as, being completely original and
ground-breaking, it was in fact ‘not to style’.
I thought about this when reading How Soon is Now? – a
definitive history of indie music by Richard King. Read a biography of a band,
or a sweeping review such as King’s that seeks to contextualise and explain a
musical movement, and it’s not about what instruments they played or how big
the studio was: it’s about the people, how they were influenced previous bands,
other artistic forms or just what was in their air at the time, and how music
made them and their fans feel.
‘Wouldn’t it be brilliant if someone wrote a history of
craft/good beer following the conventions of music journalism rather than beer
writing?’ I thought. ‘Not writing so much about cascade hops and the structure
of the industry, but more broadly about the trends and most of all the people,
the decisions and sacrifices they made, the chances they took, the ideas and
creativity that drove them. That would be a good book. I should give that a go.”
Of course, I never did. Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey did it
instead. Sort of.
Boak and Bailey are two of my favourite beer bloggers. I
love their combination of obvious passion and clear reason. Occasionally their blog
posts can be a little too po-faced and navel-gazing, but their air of slight
detachment means they usually end up calling things right much more often than
most other bloggers, this writer included.
Their first book, Brew Britannia (Aurum Press, £12.99) seeks
to explain ‘the strange rebirth of British beer’ from the 1960s to the present
day. While I’d quibble over the adjective ‘strange’ (interest in beer has
mirrored – and mostly followed – a similar rediscovery of flavour, tradition
and experimentation across many food and drink categories) it’s a smart
approach. Many beer history books (my own included) take the long view and deal only briefly
with the modern period. Whereas that idea of writing a history of craft beer
would probably have started around the early 2000s, would have been much too ‘of its
time’ and would have dated badly.
What we have here instead is a story of beer gradually
becoming something worth caring about, something to be appreciated – at first
by retired World War Two officers looking for an excuse for a piss-up, through
the foundation of CAMRA to the discovery of new ideas in beer, the growth of
the brewpub and the microbrewery, and finally, yes, the modern craft beer
phenomenon, in all its wonderful, frustrating, murky glory.
Anyone who follows B&B’s conjoined Twitter account will
be aware of how many months of painstaking research went into this book. It
seems as though they’ve read every old issue of What’s Brewing, tracked down every living person who has ever
brewed beer on a small scale in the last fifty years, as well as the surviving families
of those who are no longer with us, and then cross-referenced everything,
caveating any claim they were not able to wholly substantiate. In an age where
some observers obsess over tiny details rather than seeing the big picture, the
working here is meticulous.
But the big picture is there too. I knew that in its early
days, CAMRA had a fresher approach than the strict orthodoxy that binds it
today. But I had no idea that the founders didn’t even know what cask beer was
until the campaign had all ready formed with a semi-serious purpose to
revitalise ‘ale’, a word chosen simply because ‘it seemed solidly Northern and
down to earth – less pretentious… than beer’.
And modern ideas of ‘craft’ have much earlier roots than I
ever realised. I was aware that Sean Franklin, was using cascade hops at Rooster’s last
century, but had no idea that his craft – and that of others – went back to the
early eighties. Or that the current arguments between big brewers and
microbrewers have been raging in one form or another since the mid-1970s.
Sometimes the formal tone becomes a little stilted – the
insistence on putting anything from ‘real ale’ and ‘world beer’ to ‘greasy
spoon’, ‘foodie’ and even ‘tasting’ in ‘inverted commas’ often jars and
occasionally evokes those high court judges who need to ask someone to explain
what this ‘rap music’ is that the ‘youngsters’ are listening to.
But on the whole, the approach works. You need a steady hand
on the tiller when trying to unpick the various internecine squabbles and
Judean People’s Popular Front posturings of CAMRA, and give an accurate record
of the campaigns evolution. You need someone who doesn’t use words and phrases
like ‘squabbles’ and ‘Judean People’s Popular Front’. I’m sure there will be
some who feel their particular point of view on the use of gas dispense or
BrewDog’s Portman Group battles haven’t been given enough room, but no one on any side of the debate can
go so far as to be upset by such a clear-eyed and dispassionate account of
controversial and often confusing subjects.
What stops the detachment becoming boring is the
all-important contextualisation. Having just learned about Ian Nairn and hisideas of ‘Subtopia’ though an event at our recent literary festival, it was
fascinating to see how his ideas extended to beer – a passion that became his
eventual undoing. We learn that it was an appreciation of wine that eventually
led Sean Franklin to brew with cascade hops, that the Firkin chain – which had
an incredible influence before it was bought and cheapened into oblivion – was
originally a product of one man’s intuition and creativity. And that possibly
the most brilliant craft brewer you’ve never heard of (if you’re under fifty)
is now revolutionising the principles of banana growing – in Ireland.
Some writers who were quicker than me at reading and
reviewing this book have commented that it goes downhill at the end – that the
account of the last decade or so feels a little rushed and scrappy. Zak
suggested it’s perhaps too soon to analyse what’s just happened with the same
insight as things that happened twenty or thirty years ago. The last few
chapters do read more like blog posts from the end of 2013 rather than a
complete account of trends. But that’s OK too: the story is open-ended. It
hasn’t finished yet. Interestingly, many of my beloved music books – including
How Soon is Now – neatly avoid this problem by telling the story from one date
to another, flagging up an artificial cut-off point after which the
protagonists don’t necessarily live happily ever after, and the struggle
continues. I really don’t think that was an option here for a book that was
published as the story it tells is yet to reach its dramatic peak. 
If I had written my version of this story it would have been bloodier and more chaotic than this one: more evangelical, more
critical, more involved. I’d have made a lot more of the indie music analogy, and
gone Big Picture to the point of wilful digression.
Which is why I’m glad Boak and Bailey got there first and
did it their way. We need this account, in this form, if we are to fully
understand where beer is today, how it got here, and from there, to start to
speculate about where it might go next.
While they were pitching this book to publishers, Boak and
Bailey wrote a review of Shakespeare’s Local in which they kindly said I was a ‘writer
[publishers] think has really nailed it in commercial terms’ when it comes to
beer books. Here I can return the compliment by saying this is a book that I
wish I had written, but was beaten to it by people who have done a better job than I would have.                                                               

6 Comments

6 Comments

Wyreman

Just purchased a copy after hearing about it at Thornbridges peak weekender , looking forward to reading it whilst sipping cold fizzy lager in Greece for 10 days !!!! Craft brews in Greece? any ideas ?

Reply
py

Here's what you need to do Pete: wait 5 years until we see how this craft beer revolution pans out, and then write a side-by-side dual history in the style of Godfather II, one 1970 to 1990 that covers the birth of CAMRA and the saviour of real ale, and another 2000 to 2020, that covers that craft revolution.

Reply
Seth Ogden

Any lass that sups a pint with her husband and can spare the time from her domestic duties to write a book with him deserves full marks .

Reply
Gary Gillman

Interesting review. I agree B&B did a first-class job here. It is amazing one can recreate so meticulously events of 40 and 50 years ago, which, while important us, were hardly at the centre of the national agenda. B&B skilfully explicated it all this and uncovered some nuggets, e.g., not just that Sean Franklin innovated with Cascade, but when he did it (circa-1980), possibly before Sierra Nevada. Another interesting point is that Bill Urqhuart was selling a fair bit of (unpasteurized) filtered beer under pressure in the 70's, which is essentially craft keg. But for CAMRA's huge shadow, that dispense style could have become usual for craft beer as it did in the States.

I was struck as you were by the whimsical origins of CAMRA and the beer from the wood group. It's nice to read it though, fits the beer ethos to a t.

I had no problem with the detached tone, as you said it's another perspective. I had more trouble figuring out what Ribena is, or a "Radio 4 accent", but never mind.

This is award material when comes time to give out the gongs for the best beer books this year.

Gary

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