Trawling through old notebooks can yield unexpected treasures.
The new beer book I’m currently working on was initially inspired by a few experiences that I’d never properly written up and used.
Sometimes I’ll visit a brewery or go to an event and I’m inspired by it, taking pages of notes, and I’ll decide to write them up for one of my columns. A typical column is 700-800 words long, and while the column itself might be good, it only skates across the surface of the notes and observations I’ve made.
When I decided to write a book about hops, it was because I knew I had unused material that I’d gathered on a visit to the National Hop Collection in Kent, a jaunt to Slovenia to see the hop farms there, and a hazy account of Chmelfest, the hop blessing festival in the town of Zatec in the Czech Republic, home of the revered Saaz hop. I’d written up the National Hop Collection and Slovenia for short Publican’s Morning Advertiser columns, but I’d never known quite what to do with the Chmelfest notes. That’s where the idea for this book was born. About thirty seconds after deciding to use these three stories as the basis for a book about hops, I thought, ‘Why just hops?’ And What Are You Drinking? was born.
So now I’m deep into pulling the book together, writing up notes from trips over the last year and digging into my pile of old notebooks to find bits from over the last few years that also belong in this book.
I went to Chmelfest back in 2007, just as I was starting work on the first Cask Report and while I was trying to plan the sea voyage that would become my third book, Hops and Glory. So I dug into my pile of notebooks trying to find the one I’d been using in early 2007.
It turned out to be the same one I’d been using in late 2006 – number 6 in the stash of anally numbered notebooks I began when I first started travelling to write about beer. Chmelfest is about two thirds of the way through, and the notes are more intact and coherent than I have any right to expect. But near the front of the book, undated, is a short set of notes – just two pages – about a meeting between Michael Jackson and Stefano Cossi and Martin Dickie, who were then two young brewers at a new brewery called Thornbridge.
I remember this meeting taking place at the legendary White Horse pub in West London. I can’t remember why I was there, why I’d been invited, but the two brewers were sitting against the wall with Michael facing them across a table. I was sitting two seats down, watching, not daring to join in.
I remember being inspired by Michael that night, and later feeling lucky that I was there. A year on from this meeting Michael would be dead and Martin would have left Thornbridge to start up BrewDog. Martin has spoken often about what an inspiration the meeting was to him. It’s become part of BrewDog folklore, a key event in the origin story, which makes me feel weird that I’d been there as a silent observer.
The occasion was the launch of a new beer called Kipling. Michael thought it was interesting because it used a new hop called Nelson Sauvin which came from New Zealand, and no one had brewed in Britain using New Zealand hops before. (In my notes I wrote ‘Nelson Sauverne’, which is how it sounded when Martin said it.) Martin and Stef had encountered a sample of these hops and immediately ordered some in. They wanted to make a beer that celebrated their flavour, because they were already, according to my notes, ‘bringing in obscure US hops’ for beers like Jaipur.
In a demonstration of my stunning beer writing skills at the time, my tasting notes stretch to ‘grapefruit in the finished beer.’ I also wrote down ‘Fills in the gaps that are left by the flavour spikes in spicy, deep-fried spring rolls.’ I don’t know if I wrote this because that’s what the beer was paired with because I didn’t write any more detail about what we were eating and drinking. I may have been quoting someone. (Does anyone really think spring rolls have flavour spikes?)
I’ll spare you my clumsy notes about Thornbridge and my observations about its two young, moody brewers. The reason for sharing the reminiscence is the notes I made about Michael Jackson. I was paying more attention to him during the interview than I was to the two brewers.
I’m tempted to tidy up my notes and write them better. It’s a rubbish piece of writing, embarrassing in parts, but I wanted to share the sentiments it contains, so here it is quoted as I wrote it, unvarnished by later experience or hindsight:
Michael going on – interesting enough stories. Meeting some of these people is a bit special. He’s created this thing, still sees it w the novelty he genuinely discovered for the first time.
Gentle, warming method of questioning that draws the best out of his subject – “Why this beer?” “What did you think of the hop the first time you tasted it?”
It doesn’t seem like much, written up. But this was an absolute inspiration to a fledgling beer writer. The obvious passion, undimmed after thirty-odd years. And the focus on the people, how they felt, making it about them and getting the best from them. I remember sitting there thinking, “THIS is how you do it.”
I still think that. My own notes are better now.