Category: Beer

| Barley, Craft Beer, Hops, Miracle Brew, Water, Yeast

Miracle Brew – and me – to hit North America!

My new beer book is published in the United States and Canada this week. And I’m going to be doing a short tour to promote it. 

My latest book, Miracle Brew, is a globetrotting adventure into the nature of beer. It’s a tale that grew in the telling, with some parts going back as far as ten years, coalescing into the idea for a book about the ingredients of beer back in late 2014.

Why a book about the ingredients of beer? Well, it’s a timely thing: recent research in the UK by the There’s A Beer For That campaign shows that only 22% of people know what beer is made of, which is odd given that it’s the third most popular drink on the planet.

So in response: Miracle Brew presents a complete natural history of beer and emphasizes the importance of place—or terroir—that each ingredient brings to the finished glass. I travelled from the vast hop gardens of the Yakima Valley in Washington State to Bamberg in the heart of Bavaria, where malt smoked over an open flame creates beer that tastes like liquid bacon. The book explores explores traditional malting techniques, the evolution of modern hop breeding, water chemistry, and the miraculous catalyst that is fermentation to show how craft beer brewing has become a part of the local food movement and is redefining how the world perceives beer.

There’s more information about the book, and reviews, here.

So I have a short but very busy promotional schedule as follows. If you’re in town, have any beer or cider tips for me, or want to interview me or chat about the book, just let me know!

Saturday 14th October to Tuesday 17th October – New York

I’ll be doing some interviews and podcasts, and on Monday 16th taking part in an event for the Legion of Osiris.

Wednesday 18th October – Somerville, Massachusetts

An evening event with Aeronaut Brewing.

Thursday 19th October – TBC

Friday 20th October -Brattleboro, Vermont

An evening event with Hermit Thrush Brewing.

Saturday 21st to Sunday 22nd October – Toronto

On the Saturday afternoon I’m delighted to be doing a book signing alongside friend and fellow author Stephen Beaumont at the magnificent Cask Days festival. Then on Sunday evening I’m doing an event with Henderson Brewing.

Monday 23rd to Tuesday 24th October – Boston

On the evening of Monday 23rd I’m doing an event with Harpoon Brewing, then kicking around Boston for the day before flying home on Tuesday night!

Madly excited about my first ever North American book tour. I’ll be adding more dates back home in the UK on my return.

| Beer, Books, Cider, Writing

Welcome to petebrown.net!

I’ve upgraded my blog to a new website that covers all my writing and events, and aims to reflect the ongoing developments in communicating about beer, cider – and writing beyond that.

The tools of my trade.

I used to have a beer blog once. At one point I was blogging two or three times a week. I used to enjoy it. Then, various things happened. Firstly, I got screamingly busy with books and journalism, and didn’t have much time to blog any more. Also, my writing started to diversify from beer into other subjects. And then, one day, my blog suddenly looked so old-fashioned, with broken links all over the place, a cheesy photo and outdated backgrounds, that I got embarrassed about it. Even when I had something I wanted to write, I was put off the idea by one look at my sorry homepage.

I took a look at some other blogs and online beer writing. Sites like Good Beer Hunting and superb blogs from writers like Matt Curtis and Jeff Alworth showed me how important good visuals have become to the experience of communicating about beer (something I need to work on) as well as great words and ideas. They and others also demonstrated how the possibilities for – and expectations of – layout and design have vastly improved since I last gave my old blog a polish in 2012.

When I started blogging in 2006, the impetus was purely to promote my books. There were only one, maybe two other beer blogs in the UK at the time, and blogging as an end in itself hadn’t really been established.

Back then I had two books to promote. Now I have eight, with a ninth on the way in 2018. Every time I meet someone who proudly tells me they’ve read all three of my books, I realise I could be doing more on the book promotion side of things.

The realities of modern book publishing also mean that, just like the music business, if you want to promote books you really need to do so via live events. I’ve been doing a great many of these but not really sharing enough information about them beforehand, so my events page will be markedly improved from now on.

So part of this is hard-edged commerce: the landing page of this site, and various other pages, work like many an author’s website does across fiction and non-fiction, famous names and first-timers, to give the latest news of what I’m up to and promote my wares.

But on top of all that, blogging as a discipline isn’t going away. Over the years I’ve seen many people dabble and even make their names as bloggers before moving away from the medium when they get professional writing gigs. It’s great that blogging allows us to do that. But it can also do things professional writing can’t always do. For example, I love having my column in the Morning Advertiser every month, but the lead-times mean I have to write it two to three weeks before it appears in print. I’ve seen so many stories recently that I’ve wanted to comment on, just in a few words, to provoke discussion, make a point, ask a question or just get something off my chest. They’re things that need to be said in the moment, and said in more than 140 (or 280) characters.

So take a look around. All the content from my old blog has been transferred across. Explore links to writing I’ve done for other publications, learn more about books you may not have read yet, arrange to come and see me doing an event near you – whatever, I hope you just enjoy the writing. I’ll be adding more stuff, tidying up categories and links etc, over the coming weeks.

One final word – blogging has become murky water these days when it comes to brands, marketing and public relations. These days, PRs ‘reach out’ to us, not to give us ideas for stories but to ‘work with us’. Companies offer to write guest posts for us, occasionally for money if we agree not to mention that this is a commercial transaction, which breaks all kinds of laws and regulations around ethical advertising. The only way this website will make money is by helping me sell my books and events, and possibly other beery products in a forthcoming online shop. I never have and never will take a penny in advertising (though I don’t have a problem with people who do – at least it’s open and above board) or in underhand sponsored/paid for content. There is a lot of talk these days about ‘junkets’. I know some bloggers who began blogging simply to blag free beer. I don’t need to do that. But I do sometimes get sent free beer. I also frequently take hospitality from brewers and other bodies in the industry. I wouldn’t be able to do my job if I didn’t accept trips to breweries etc – I don’t earn enough from doing this to always get there at my own expense. It’s common practice in this and other industries, but for some readers (and writers) this is also an ethical issue around trust. So I will always make a note wherever trips, visits, free samples etc are relevant to something I’m writing about. I know they don’t unduly influence what I write, but you’ll be well informed enough to decide for yourself.

This site is all about celebrating good beer, good pubs, good cider – but also, good writing. Above all, that’s what I’m most passionate about. That’s what I always strive for personally, and celebrate elsewhere. This site will increaingly cover a broader subject area than beer and cider. But I hope whatever is featured here, it will always be worth reading.

| Beer, Craft Beer, Hops & Glory, IPA

A Quick Blog Post For IPA Day

If you really want to know why IPA was supposedly so strong and hoppy, look not to the breweries, but to India…

Today is apparently International Let’s Argue About The Mythology Of IPA Day.

One of the main points of contention about this much-mythologised style is whether or not it really was strong and hoppy, and if it was, why it was.

Wherever I’ve seen this point argued, it’s been exclusively to do with the nature of the beer itself: did it have to be strong and/or hoppy to survive the journey? What do the brewing records say?

Some eminent brewing historians have found evidence of low strength, relatively low-hopped IPAs making the journey, which is fascinating. But some commentators have then taken this as evidence that disproves the ‘myth’ that IPA was strong and hoppy.

But the logic of that is flawed: evidence of weaker, less hoppy proves that IPA did not have to be strong and hoppy. It does not disprove that strong, hoppy beers went to India.

In my research for my book Hops & Glory, I found requisition orders from the India Office from the 1870s which specified the gravity, hopping rate, size of barrel, even the width of the bung on the barrel, for both India Pale Ale and Porter. When we translated the specs into modern brewing, we had a beer that was around 8% ABV and had an insane amount of hops. When we recreated it with Everards Brewery, the volume of hops clogged up the kettle and the beer was green when it came out. It was so hoppy we had to new the same beer again without any hops, and blend to two to get a beer that was still damn hoppy. But what’s important to remember is that the alpha acid content – the potency of hops – is far higher now, far more concentrated, than it was then. You’d have had to had far greater physical quantities of hops in 1870 to get the bitterness from hops you get today.

Anyway, these requisitions prove that at least some IPA that went to India was very hoppy and very strong. But its presence against other less hoppy, weaker beers, proves that it did not have to be like this in order to survive the journey.

What does this tell us? Well, there’s only so much that looking at the production end of things can tell us. For further clues, we have to look at the consumption side. What did people in India want their beer to be like? Throughout the whole of brewing history, this is a question that is asked all too seldom.

Another contentious ‘myth’ is that IPA was brewed for the troops. For some reason, there’s a school of thought that it wasn’t. Certainly, it wasn’t the only think they drank. And yes, the civilians in India drank it too. But the big orders I saw for requisition were specifically for the he numbers of troops that were sent to India after the 1857 first war of Indian Independence (referred to by colonialists as the Indian Mutiny.)

Being a soldier in India was a life of short periods of extreme violence separated by long stretches of total boredom. The soldiers filled that boredom by drinking.

When Fanny Parkes went India on a ship full of soldiers in 1827, she came to know many of her fellow passengers and was shocked at how quickly many of them died. The average life expectancy of a soldier serving in Calcutta was just three months. Disease was a far bigger killer than combat, and much of it was caused by alcohol.

Beer couldn’t be brewed well in India, but a drink known as arak could be made simply by drawing off palm sap and letting it ferment in the hot sun. Arak drinking contests claimed the first European casualties in India when the Dutch and English spice traders got there. One binge could be fatal.

So, in order to keep soldiers alive, they had to be given alcohol that was strong and flavourful, like arak, but not fatal. IPA was strong because if it wasn’t, the boozy soldiers would have drunk arak instead.

As for hoppiness? The vivid hop characters we love today would have vanished from the beer after months on a hot ship. But the flavours changed. The locals used to say IPA ‘ripened’, and when it was ripe, they described it character as being like champagne. My sea-matured IPA certainly had that character to it – somewhere between what we think of as IPA and barley wine.

So – at least some IPA was strong and hoppy. It didn’t have to be. It was like that because that’s how people wanted it to be, so they drank it instead of the local gut rot.

| Barley, Beer, Books, Craft Beer, Hops, Miracle Brew, Water, Writing, Yeast

‘Miracle Brew’ is coming – at last!

My first book about beer since 2009 hits UK shelves next week – and North America later this year.
It’s been a long wait – nearly two and a half years – for those who pledged when I first announced that I was publishing my new beer book through crowd-funding publisher Unbound.
Ironically, from announcing the book and opening pledges to the date of publication, its taken about a year less than any of my first three beers books took to research and write. Books like these take you down a long and lonely road.
There was a degree of consternation over the decision to crowdfund a book. Did it mean I couldn’t get published in a traditional way? (No.) What do investors get? (A book, for the price of a book, with your name listed in the back.) Was it vanity publishing? (No – in many ways, it’s the opposite.) But quite quickly, enough people pledged – around 530 – so that Unbound could give it the green light.
Those who did pledge should be receiving their copies this week. (If that’s you, please tweet or post when you get it!) The book is also available to pre-order on Amazon,  and because Unbound have a distribution deal with Penguin Random House, it’ll be in bookshops just like any other book from Thursday 1st June.
I did have a few readers in North America complain about the shipping cost when they tried to pledge for the book – for some, it was more than the book itself. The good news there is that Chelsea Green, a publisher that has produced some of my favourite food and drink books, has just bought the North American rights to Miracle Brew and they’ll be publishing a slightly tweaked* edition in the autumn – sorry, fall – probably early October, and it looks like I’ll be doing an American publicity tour to support it! Maybe see you at the Great American Beer Festival.
I’m enormously proud of this book. In terms of tone and content, it picks up on elements of Man Walks into a Pub, Three Sheets to the Wind and Hops & Glory, but also reflects the fact that I’m a decade older than when I wrote those books. The first was a history book about beer, the second a travel book about beer, and the third combined the two with a bit extra. Judged by the same standard, this is a science and nature book about beer, with a lot of travel and history, and plenty of extra, all thrown in. At 400 pages long it’s a chunky bastard – just like its author these days…
I daresay I’ll be writing more here about it soon.
* Because references to a cheeky Nando’s with the Archbishop of Banterbury still aren’t travelling that well.
Miracle Brew is published in the UK by Unbound on 1st June, hardback, RRP £16.99

 

| Advertising, BrewDog, Craft Beer, Marketing, The Business End

Why I can’t get too excited about BrewDog’s big ‘sell out’

The bad boys of brewing recently sold a 22% stake of their company to an investment firm. So?

First, I have a terrible confession to make. Remember when John Lydon made those butter ads? I’m afraid I was partly responsible for that.

It wasn’t my idea or anything like that, but in my role as a planner I was responsible for putting together the research among butter buyers to find out who the best celebrity would be to front the campaign. It was one of the last freelance planning jobs I did before being able to switch to writing and beer consultancy full time.

We tested Lydon against a bunch of other people, and he came out top among Britain’s housewives because they felt he was so uncompromising, he’d never just do an ad for the money – he’d only do it if he genuinely believed what he was saying.

In other words, he was the best person to do what we were paying him to do, because he would never do what we were paying him to do, so if he did that, it’s OK.

Predictably Lydon got some stick for ‘selling out’. Because this is Johnny Rotten we’re talking about, he didn’t give a shit. Where he deigned to give a response, he said that punk was always about grabbing the filthy lucre from the big guys, and that’s exactly what he was doing here.

(If you ever tire of arguing about the definition of craft beer, head over to music and have a go at defining punk. As I witnessed last year at an event to mark punk’s 40th anniversary, it makes craft beer look simple.)

So I’ve witnessed a similar situation before to the one this week where BrewDog announced they were selling a chunk of the company to TSG Investment Partners in San Francisco – the same people who also help finance Vitaminwater, popchips and US beer brand Pabst – and were greeted with cries of ‘sell out!’

I can’t get too excited one way or the other about this.

Firstly, it’s hardly surprising, is it? BrewDog has been on an astonishing growth spurt for ten years. It already has 44 bars around the world and exports to 55 countries, and has double or even triple digit growth every year. The company has always been about rapid expansion, and this is a logical next step, which, if it has any lesson at all, is that, as Martyn Cornell has written, crowdfunding can only get you so far.

Second, BrewDog is maturing. Being ‘punk’ makes perfect sense when you arrive and overturn all the tables in the temple of beer, but they’re ten years old now, and that’s ancient in craft beer years. Martin Dickie and James Watt are in their mid-thirties with young families, and they employ, at the last count, about 450 people. A couple of years ago they did a re-brand that ever so subtly made them look and feel more grown up, less brash.

Before
After

BrewDog stopped being ‘punk’ when they grew into a stable, successful business that supports hundreds of people’s livelihoods instead of putting their foot through the mash tun and throwing the fermenters into a swimming pool before overdosing on End of History in a seedy hotel room. Behind the image and the increasingly infrequent brash stunts, they employ marketers, PR people, accountants, HR managers as well as brewers who all know what they’re doing, because you can’t function as a large business if you don’t. That doesn’t sound very punk, does it?

Thirdly, James Watt individually still owns more of the company than the investment firm he’s sold a chunk of his business to. If you insist on going by the US definition of craft beer, the sold stake is less than the threshold that disqualifies BrewDog from being craft.

I doubt anyone can be truly surprised by this move. I’d be amazed if anyone was genuinely upset by it. I think any outcry is merely the satisfaction of being able to say, ‘I told you so.’

As this spoof makes clear, the one significant part of this is that BrewDog will find it increasingly difficult to get away with grandstanding ‘4 real’ behaviour. I’ve sensed a move away from this over the last few years anyway.

The punk attitude has helped BrewDog build an amazing brand that pays a lot of people’s wages and genuinely does encourage more people to enjoy great beer than would otherwise have been the case.

Punk is dead. But the punks won.

Okay, now you can tell me how the Sex Pistols were never really punk anyway.

| Beer, Beer Festivals, London

Why ‘craft keg’ is the saviour, not the enemy, of cask ale

The vibrancy of London’s brewing scene in 2017 shows just how antiquated the argument over format has become. 

On Wednesday I opened the 33rd London Drinker festival, in a grand old hall just opposite St Pancras Station. For the first time, the festival was stocking exclusively beers brewed in London. This wouldn’t have been possible until recently – ten years ago London had two or three breweries. Today it has around ninety.

This was also the first time the festival had a keg beer stand. It was tucked quietly into a corner by the cider stall, but it was there. Festival organiser Christine Cryne told me she’d had some hate mail about the inclusion of beers that some feel are ‘the enemy of cask’, the ‘thin end of the wedge’ of some vast, corporate conspiracy, carefully woven over the last forty years, to exterminate cask ale, for reasons that have never been really made clear.

But Christine did say she’d had about the same number of messages congratulating the organisers for having a more progressive stance. CAMRA is not some single monolith, but a sprawling mass of people with differing views. Parts of it at least are moving with the times.

But on my way to the festival, I read something in one of CAMRA’s branch magazines that reiterated the old arguments against ‘craft keg’ – a phrase which, in its very existence, to me shows the absurdity of those making the argument, defining and judging beer by the container it’s served in rather than its style, ingredients, or the intent of the person brewing it. The whole argument feels like it should have gone away after 2010, and for most beer drinkers, it has.

So I don’t want to reignite a debate that’s pointless in that neither side is likely to change their minds, but I do want to share one observation, given that this was on my mind when I was looking around the festival and trying to think what I was going to say onstage to declare it open.

I was struck not just by the number of London brewers around, but also by the nature of the beers they were offering.

I didn’t even get chance to visit the keg bar: the central cask offering was utterly absorbing.

Most of the brewers didn’t exist ten years ago. Those that I know personally consider themselves craft brewers, and sell their beers in cask, keg, bottles and cans. I can’t speak for them, but I suspect many of them were inspired to give up their old jobs and start brewing because of the energy and momentum surrounding craft beer over the last decade.

The beers they were offering would certainly seem to bear this out. Alphabeta’s Best Bitter was quenching and refreshing at 3.8% ABV and wouldn’t have been out of place at any time in the festival’s 33 year history. But I doubt the same brewery would have been offering a brown ale aged in old bourbon casks if it were not for the pioneering work of American and British craft brewers in barrel ageing.

Anspach and Hobday’s pale ale, like many British pale and golden ales now, was brewed with American hops popularised by US craft brewers. Barnet’s Pryor Reid IPA was brewed to a Victorian recipe. Before US craft keg and bottle brewers rediscovered such old recipes, IPA had become a low strength session beer indistinguishable from any other bitter. Craft beer hasn’t just inspired brewers to try something new and different, but also to dig back deeper into our own past.

And so it goes on, all the way through the beer list: Brick’s American pale ale brewed with Cascade, Simcoe and Mosaic, Canopy’s session IPA, Clarkshaw’s Darker Hell – a dark lager, East London’s Oatmeal Stout brewed with vanilla, Howling Hops’ double chocolate coffee toffee vanilla milk porter, One Mile End’s blood orange wheat double IPA, Uprising’s wheat beer with American hops, Southwark’s Russian Imperial Stout…

The dependable milds and best bitters, the golden ales and ESBs are still there. But before craft beer came along, every brewer in the room would have been brewing in the same narrow template. The number of breweries is soaring. The range of cask beers those brewers are creating is unprecedented. And attendance creeps steadily upwards.

The first generation of American craft brewers were inspired by British cask ales from the likes of Fuller’s and Young’s. In turn, those American craft brewers are inspiring British brewers to brew not just ‘craft keg’ beers, but also breathe new life and creativity into cask.

If craft keg really is the enemy of cask ale, it’s doing a terrible job of trying to kill off cask, which has never looked more vibrant.

| Beer, Beer tasting, Craft Beer

Tasting Beer: Some Thoughts and Reflections

Being faced with a flight of beers I had no desire to drink made me think philosophically for a bit, and wonder if there’s a different narrative to tasting and enjoying beer.

I love judging the Brussels Beer Challenge. It’s one of my favourite competitions, because it’s global in scope, but it happens in Belgium, which means the beers you’re tasting during judging sessions have to measure up to the beers you drink in a typical bar round the corner. Last year I had to judge 24 Belgian-style Tripels in the morning, and then we visited the Trappist brewery at Westmalle in the afternoon, and drank Westmalle Tripel and… well, it would be rude to the breweries entering the competition to complete that thought. Some of them tried really hard.

Last November, I was judging again in Brussels. You never know what category you’re going to get. You accept you’re going to get some that you’re not best friends with, but hope that it’ll balance out and that you’ll get some good ones. Sometimes – as I found with the Tripels the year before – getting a style you love can be a mixed blessing. But can it work the other way round? Can you find something wonderful in a category you think you hate?

At 9.15 that Saturday morning, I found out: 47 fruit beers were waiting to be sipped, savoured and scored.

These were not Berlinerweiss with added fruit, nor fruit IPAs nor krieks. These were beers where fruit (or fruit syrup, or concentrate) was the main flavour. I rarely, if ever, drink these beers. The whole table was trepidatious about the promised assault on our precious palates. How to judge them?

There were style guidelines, and in many competitions, judging to style is the most important point: you can find the best beer you’ve ever tasted in your life, but if it has more colour units or hop character or a lower or higher ABV than the guidelines say, you have to mark it down, so I always prefer the competitions that give some leeway as to whether it’s a good beer or not. But with a style I reject as a drinker, how should I judge its appeal beyond whether it was ‘to style’ or not?

In thinking this through, I started to think about how we taste and enjoy beer. The vast majority of people who drink beer don’t spend too much time thinking about what’s going on in the mouth, and that’s fine – beer is a social lubricant, and while you’re drinking it, most of your attention is focused elsewhere. Just like when you read half a page of a book and realise you haven’t taken it in because you’ve been thinking about something else, or there’s music playing and you can’t recall what the last few songs were because you were listening to your friend talking, there’s a big difference between sensory stimulus being picked up by your mouth, nose, eyes etc., and your brain actually paying any attention to it. When we taste beer, as opposed to drinking it, the biggest difference is not in the size or shape of the glass, the sniffing and swirling; it’s in the simple act of directing your attention to the beer itself rather than anything else.

I’ve seen many craft beer fans necking beers they’ve paid a lot of money for and which they profess a deep understanding of. There’s nothing wrong with that – even if you get stuck into the sensory impressions on the first couple of sips, you’d look a bit of a dick if you continued to focus on it throughout the entire glass, to the exclusion of everything else happening around you.

But sometimes, those of us who do love beer really do want to interrogate what’s going on with it, and not just when you’re judging. A huge chunk of beer writing consists of tasting notes of different beers. But here’s my problem, informed by reading Beer Advocate and Rate Beer, and by sitting with beer experts judging competitions: too often, tasting beer can descend into a pissing contest about who can pick up and identify what different elements are in the beer. Whether that’s correctly identifying the hops or malts used, or being able to ‘get’ notes of hibiscus, salted caramel, cuban cigars or whatever, I always worry that tasting notes along these lines are more about the taster than the beer. Here’s an example I picked at random, years ago, from Beer Advocate, to make the point:

 

“After swirling a bit I am getting some creosote, faint hop background, malt wort. Taste is bitter and dry, strong roasty presence, a bit like old coffee grounds. Finishes out with some astringency.”

If you’re into your beer these days, and you frequent sites like this, that probably makes a lot of sense to you. But what’s it doing, really? I honestly can’t tell from this description whether the taster actually likes the beer or not, and from this, I can’t be sure whether I would or not, either. Is identifying a series of disparate parts and impressions the same thing as describing a beer, or appreciating it?

I don’t think so.

Think about literature, about reading the introduction of a new character. When did you last read a description along the lines of “She was about five feet four, with mid-brown hair. She was caucasian, approximately thirty years of age, wearing a navy blue skirt and jacket over white blouse, finished with a Laura Ashley scarf and black shoes.”

This is what you get in a police report, not a piece of creative writing. It describes a person, but gives me no idea of who that person is, whether I would be interested in talking to her, or why I should be interested in meeting her. A good novelist can give you a brilliant picture of a real person without mentioning any of these details.

But I’m meant to be talking about tasting, not writing. The thing is, if we accept that this identity parade of flavour notes is what tasting beer is meant to be like, we feel pressured to simply spot as many and unusual constituent parts as we can rather than thinking about the whole.

Faced with my fruit beers, I realised this would be no good. Here’s a strawberry beer. “I’m getting strawberries.” OK, thanks. That would be it. But the thing is, in that tasting session, I tasted good strawberry beers (well, one) and bad. What was the difference between them?

The good one tasted like a beer that had strawberry flavour in it, rather than like strawberry soda. You could still tell it was beer. And the strawberry tasted of strawberry, rather than strawberry syrup. And the strawberry part and the beer part harmonised and felt like they belonged together.

By the end of the morning I’d enjoyed several of the beers, and I’d scribbled out some thoughts on how, if I’m in an analytical mood, I might get more from tasting beer than I do from the prevailing spot-the-flavour-note model.

APPEARANCE
In an age of cloudy craft beers, this is problematic, and we allocate it too many marks in beer competitions. Some truly revolting beers look clean, bright and sparkling, and score better than they should because of it. It’s also dependent on the context of the beer you’ve ordered. Does it look like you expected it to? Does it look like you want it to? Does it make you want to drink it?

AROMA
This is where we create the competition to see who can spot what, and wine is no different from beer. It’s also where any taster opens themselves up to accusations of pretentiousness.

It’s flawed to give aroma too much attention all the time, because humans actually get most of our aroma sensations from ‘retronasal olfaction,’ meaning you really get it when it’s in your mouth/when you’re swallowing, and it passes up to your nasal cavity from the back of your throat, and past your olfactory bulb as you breathe out through your nose.

Instead of thinking of this stage as an identity parade of flavour notes, what if you think of it as a courtship? Is there any aroma at all? If not, why not?

Despite the retronasal thing, this is a big indicator (though not a foolproof one) of the main event. Aroma should entice you. Does it put you off instead? Or does it make you want to plunge in? With some great and powerful beers, the aroma makes me want to carry on sniffing, almost forgetting to drink. On a few rare occasions, as with fresh coffee or freshly baked bread, the delivery may not even live up to the aroma’s promise. But overall, I’m looking for aroma to increase the anticipation and desire of drinking. However it might do that, if it isn’t doing it, it’s not working.

TASTE
Obviously, this is the main event. In the first second in which the beer enters your mouth, there’s an initial flash of flavour sensation, before your rational, analytical brain kicks in. Can you capture that and appreciate it? How does it make you feel? I’m increasingly of the opinion that to really get this, you should start by taking a generous swig rather than a dainty sip.

Once it develops, is there a journey across the palate? Does it develop as it moves around your mouth, or as it sits there, or is it just a quick flash of something that quickly disappears? Is it complex or one-dimensional?

Here, I then start to think about whether I’m actually enjoying the beer, and depending on your level of comfort with this kind of reflection, this is where we get either pretentious or we separate good from bad: Is there a point to this beer? What’s it trying to be, and does it succeed?

If it’s trying to be simple and direct and refreshing, does it do that job well or are there odd bits sticking out? (I’ve nothing against a clean, crisp lager, but if there are incongruent flavours due to poor technique or short lagering, they spoil what it’s trying to do.)

If it’s trying to be complex and rewarding, are all those constituent parts that beer-spotters love identifying so much working together or do they jar with each other? (I sometimes find complex craft beers to be a flabby collection of elements in search of an idea).

FINISH
Aftertaste is a sensory experience – partly due to that retronasal thing, partly because some beers linger. How do you feel once you’ve swallowed that first sip? Are you satisfied? Do you want to drink more? This is revealing – how many times do you not feel this to be the case, but you force it down anyway, because you’ve paid for it? How many flabby beers do you finish with grim determination? And how many times does the finishing buzz compel you to raise the glass again, to try to complete a circle, to nag away at the desire the beer has created?

By the time I got to the end of my flight of fruit beers, I’d enjoyed a few of them, and found the experience of tasting them – even the ones I didn’t like – to be thoughtful and revealing. And I had some thoughts that help me appreciate beer rather than just tasting it.

What do you think? How do you appreciate beer? Do you intellectualise it at all or just judge it by how quickly you finish a pint and how much you want to order another? Because after all that, when I look at a tasting flight in competitions, usually the easiest way of spotting my favourite is to look at which glass is nearly empty.

| Beer, Beer Books, Beer Writing, Writing

Beery Books for Christmas

Obviously you’ve already bought mine (or dropped strong hints to have it bought for you) but it’s been a bumper year for beer books. Here are my three favourites of 2016.

The World Atlas of Beer (second edition)
Tim Webb and Stephen Beaumont, Mitchell Beazley, RRP £25

Michael Jackson’s first World Guide to Beer (and its vinous forerunner, Hugh Johnson’s World Atlas of Wine) set a template for coffee table drinks books that has slowly mutated over the years, and spawned off-shoots in the ‘how many beers to drink before you die’ mould that seem to be hitting the shelves daily. I question the need for books like this, partly because there are so bloody many of them and they’re all essentially the same, and partly because if you want beer reviews, the internet is a much more up-to-date and accessible way of getting them. But these books work because people love having them all in one place and ticking them off – or some people do, at any rate.

What’s surprising when you go back to Jackson’s first book now is that there isn’t a single page of bottle shots and tasting notes, just longer, highly readable articles about different countries, regions and styles.

In this second edition of their guide – the first of which established Beaumont and Webb as the natural heirs to Jackson in the format he created – the authors managed to convince the publishers to get rid of the pages of bottle shot and tasting notes that have crept in over the years, and use the space instead to actually write about beer rather than simply cataloguing it. That makes this book a blast of fresh air in a format that’s become stuffy.

The world of good beer has expanded greatly since Jackson first mapped it out, and that’s why a book like this today needs two authors, one on either side of the Atlantic, if it is to be as authoritative as it needs to be. Both Webb and Beaumont have been writing about beer for decades – they have about sixty years experience between them. They still travel regularly to both the obvious beer countries – the US, Belgium, Germany, UK – and those that are rapidly emerging as new craft beer stars, such as Brazil, Spain, Japan.

At times the book’s scope is stretched a little too thin – some of the minor countries get a page with a nice photo and just enough room to list three or four up-and-coming craft brewers – but in the countries you really want to read about, no one does it better than these two. They combine their knowledge with a very dry wit, and don’t suffer fools gladly. The tone is calm scholarship rather than breathless enthusiasm, and they’re unafraid to be critical. But on every page you feel like you’re in the company of experts who love their subject.

(Like big, epic beer tomes? You should also check out the gargantuan Belgian Beer Book by Erik Verdonck and Luc de Raedemaeker, Lanoo, RRP £45.) 

Beer in So Many Words
Adrian Tierney-Jones (editor), Safe Haven Books in association with The Homewood Press, RRP £14.99

It’s not just beer writers who write about beer, and not all beer writing is good. To pull together an anthology of the best writing about beer (as opposed to ‘beer writing’) requires an extensive knowledge of the subject as well as being well-read much more broadly.

The contents page of the book is a delight to read in itself. As a community, beer geeks and writers need to be reminded fairly regularly that beer doesn’t belong just to us, that it’s a popular drink that is appreciated by a wide range of people. And here, names like Boak and Bailey, Roger Protz, Jeff Evans, Melissa Cole and, well, me, rub shoulders with Dylan Thomas, Ian Rankin, Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene and Charles Dickens.

This is a book to lose yourself in, to wander back and forth through, to put down briefly and take a sip of something dark and rich while you ponder. It’s themed in sections: The Taste of Beer, Beer in Pubs, Beer People, Brewing, Beer Journeys, Beer and Food and The Meaning of Beer. It reminds you of what made you fall in love with beer (and reading, and writing) and is highly likely to give you fresh perspectives and insights on a subject you thought you knew all about.

(Like anthologies of writing about beer? You should also check out 
CAMRA’s Beer Anthology: a Pub Crawl through British Culture, edited by Roger Protz, CAMRA, RRP £9.99)

Food and Beer
Daniel Burns and Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergso, Phaidon, RRP £29.95

Of all the avalanche of beer books being published right now, the most dramatic trend is in books about beer and food. Within the last couple of years, I’ve acquired a whole bookshelf full on this subject alone.

I’m a keen cook, and am always looking for inspiration. I use some of these books often, but am often frustrated that most of them seem to consist mainly of big hunks of red meat, of burgers, wings and pulled pork, of melted cheese and stout-braised ribs and sticky puddings with rich glazes. I’m sure it’s all very nice, but I’m already bored of the kind of food because it seems to be the only thing you ever get served in craft-centric pubs and bars. When I get home, I want to eat more healthily. At the same time, I want to push my cooking skills, taking time out of writing to do something absorbing and satisfying, learning new techniques and skills.

‘Food and Beer’ may not be the most exciting title of a book about food and beer (I’ve already got three different books called Beer and Food, and one other Food and Beer) but this is the topic getting a higher end, classier treatment than it’s ever had so far, and it’s no accident that ‘food’ comes first in the title. Chef Daniel Burns has cooked at Noma and the Fat Duck, and gypsy brewer Jeppe Jarnit-Bergso founded Evil Twin brewing and also worked as beer director at Noma, routinely billed as the best restaurant in the world.

What I like about this book is that there’s stuff that is insanely ambitious for an amateur like me, with those kinds of recipe that are actually five separate recipes nested within one big dish that require two days of work. But there are also relatively simple things to test yourself out with – anyone can make a heritage tomato sandwich with cider-infused mayonnaise.

Having put this book through its paces in my kitchen, it has one major flaw. A friend of mine works as a recipe tester for various celebrity chefs, taking their ideas and cooking them in her well-appointed but strictly domestic kitchen, and working out the timings, quantities and temperatures that actually work in a kitchen  a little less awesome than Noma’s. Like several other beer and food books I’ve acquired this year, this book really, desperately, needed her input. Some of the quantities in recipes are utterly nonsensical (Welsh Rarebit that contains ten times the volume of double cream to that of cheese? Really?) and whatever oven they worked out the cooking times on bears no relationship whatsoever to how mine works.

But with that fairly significant caveat aside, this is a book that combines two elements I’ve always wanted from a beer and food book: one, it seriously elevates beer as both an accompaniment and an ingredient. There’s nothing wrong with beer being allied with hearty pub and bar fare, but it’s good to see it in haute cuisine, showing its adaptability and scope. And secondly, it inspires me to be a better cook, and makes me believe I can stretch and do some of the more challenging dishes. (Although it might be a while before I attempt the pork broth and smoked egg whites on chrysanthemum base paired with smoked wheat beer.)

(Like reading about how beer and food go together? Also check out Mark Dredge’s Cooking With Beer, Dog & Bone, RRP £16.99)

Disclosure: I’m good friends with the authors of the first book and the editor of the second one. One big reason we’re good friends is that we admire each other’s work. I genuinely love these books, and have tried not to let friendship bias me in my opinion of them.

| Beer, Beer Books, Beer Writing, Books, British Guild of Beer Writers, Journalism, The Pub: A Cultural Institution

Beer Writer of the Year

On Thursday night the British Guild of Beer Writers named me their Beer Writer of the Year, for the third time.

 

I even bought a suit.

It caps an incredible year for me and I’m obviously delighted. But I still wouldn’t recommend three simultaneous book contracts to anyone, and won’t be repeating this trick any time soon.

I won two categories before picking up the overall award. First was Best Writing in Trade Media, for my columns in the Morning Advertiser. Luck always plays a big part in any success, and I think this year I was particularly lucky to have some great stories fall into my lap. The rediscovery by Carlsberg of the earliest generation of modern brewing yeast, and their successful attempt to ‘re-brew’ with it, was a unique event. And my chance to interview the man who invented nitro dispense – the technology that makes Guinness so distinctive and is now being explored by forward-thinking craft brewers – just weeks before his passing was something I’ll always remember. The research for my forthcoming book on beer ingredients also led me to some stories that I could write up as columns without taking anything away from the book.

In case you’re interested, here are links to the pieces wot won it:

 

I also won Best Writing in National Media mainly, I think, for my new book The Pub: A Cultural Institution (which is currently being sold insanely cheaply on Amazon), but I also entered pieces I’ve written for Ferment and Belgian Beer and Food magazines. I’m not the only decent writer in these excellent magazines – if you haven’t done so already, you should do yourself a favour and check them out.

As I said on the night, I owe the success of The Pub to Jo Copestick, a long-standing editor and publisher who specialise in food and drink and design, who has worked with and encouraged most good beer writers out there. We first spoke about the idea for The Pub ten years ago. She plays the long game, and she made this book finally happen. Even though it’s my name on the front I’m only a third of the team. People’s first reaction to it is that it’s a very beautiful book, and that is nothing to do with me and everything to do with Jo and designer Paul Palmer-Edwards at Grade Design. Sitting around the table with these two and being perfectionist about layout after layout was a wonderful working experience.

Having won these two categories, the judges then decided that overall, I was their Beer Writer of the Year.

It’s a trick of the order in which these awards are presented that my two awards were near the end of the evening. Earlier, it had looked like Mark Dredge was going to walk away with the big gong after sweeping Best Food and Drink Writing for his book, Cooking With Beer, and Best Beer and Travel Writing for his book The Best Beer in the World. I really hope this isn’t the start of a trend of publishing multiple books in a year because that way madness lies, but hearty congratulations to Mark for running me so close, and to the winners and runners-up in all the other categories.

Some of the stuff you hear around all awards ceremonies gets so repetitive it sounds platitudinous, but when you’re in the thick of it, phrases like ‘the standard was really high this year’ and ‘the quality of entries continues to improve’ get repeated because they are true. Having won this year, I’ll be chair of the judges next year. I’ve done this twice before. It’s always an interesting task, but the quality of work, often from writers I’ve never previously come across, scares me even as it delights me. No doubt this time next year, I’ll be here writing ‘the standard of entries was very high this year’ and ‘the judge’s decision was an extremely difficult one.’

I already know this will be true. As beer continues to excite greater numbers of people in all walks of life, many who fall in love with beer want to communicate their passion, and more and more of them are very good at it.

For a full list of winners in all categories, and comments from the judges, see the full press release here.