I’m writing and self-publishing a book in 13 weeks and sharing the experience for anyone doing or thinking of doing the same. This week: what happens when you lose your way.
Word count at the start of this week: 40381
Word count this morning: 38345
There’s a point when you’re running a marathon where you hit a wall – or so I’ve been told. And if writing a feature or blog post is a sprint, writing a book is a marathon. The wall is waiting here too, halfway through. Everything stops. Your confidence runs like piss down your legs. You’re a fucking idiot for even trying this. What were you thinking, you deluded twat. Go home. Get under the covers. Never show your face again.
I try to achieve something different, something more, as a writer with each book I write. I go to different places. I wrestle with how much of myself to put into the text. It’s always difficult – I make sure of that. My last book was my most personal yet, in a subject area I hadn’t really written about before. It got really tough in the middle. At one point I turned to Liz and said, “I don’t think I can do this. I’ve taken too much on. I can’t deliver the book I promised to the publisher. I think I’m going to have to pay back the advance. I’ve reached the limit of what I can do. I’ve never felt like this before.”
She looked at me steadily and said, “Lovely, you’ve said that in the middle of every single book you’ve written.”
This time is different, but of course it always is. This time there’s no advance, and Liz is the publisher. The motivation to keep going has to come entirely from within.
This project was designed to provide structure and purpose to our lives during an indefinite period of lockdown, and also to provide a source of income at some point in the near future. It’s a buttress against the stress we all feel around Covid-19, but yesterday the fear and anxiety got through.
I had a bad day.
I bet every single one of us is having bad days and good days. Yesterday I heard some grim projections about the future for pubs – even grimmer I should say – and became very pessimistic. I compartmentalise as a way of dealing with negative thoughts, and yesterday the bulkheads went and they flooded in.
This happened when I was already struggling with the book itself. Last week I talked about thickets. I’ve been in a really big one. People often say to me, “Ooh, you write just how you talk!” It’s the biggest compliment anyone can give me, because it shows I’ve succeeded in hammering the subject into my style. But because my style is easy and open and readable, people sometimes think it must therefore be easy to write like that. It really isn’t. Especially when you’re dealing with complicated topics that are new to you, and you’re trying to understand academic writing, retain it in your head, put your perspective on it, and then get the whole thing down in your own tone of voice and make it look simple and conversational.
I’m currently writing about the history of work, division of labour, and scientific management. I’m lightening this with reminiscences of going through the round window on Play School, and the enduring popularity of The Good Life, then trying to round it off with the story of a car advert from 1979. At the end of this bit in my notes, there’s 2500 words on tools and machines and their relationship to craft and craftspeople. It doesn’t belong here. It doesn’t belong anywhere. But it’s really important that it goes in somewhere. I can’t find where it fits, but it has to. Whether it goes here or not, I need to link either it or the car ad directly to the meditation on nostalgia that follows, which then jumps to a bit about Colin Wilson’s book The Outsider, before coming back to nostalgia again in a craft beer-specific context via a discussion of pricing. In other words, despite all my careful planning, it’s a fucking mess.
I don’t think I can do this. I’ve taken too much on. I can’t deliver the book I promised. I’ve reached the limit of what I can do. I’ve never felt like this before.
I can of course, because I have nine times before. As a source of – not comfort exactly – but bitter, empty strength, I remember my favourite line from Samuel Beckett: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” I pissed away yesterday afternoon playing Warhammer Total War, drank too much, slept through my alarm this morning, got to my desk two hours late.
And then I sat down, said goodbye to the 2500 words that had been blocking me, and started writing again. It’s going quite well. I wouldn’t have had the energy to stop and procrastinate and write this instead if it wasn’t.
It happens to all of us. The difference between people who want to write a book and the people who have written books is the stamina to get through this wall.
When I was writing Man Walks into a Pub, one Saturday morning I heard the thwack of something heavy hitting the doormat. It was an A4 brown envelope which contained – I think – the fifth round of changes requested by my editor. “I can’t do this,” I said to Liz. I threw the envelope and its contents in the bin. I said “Fuck it. For the first time in six months, I’m going to read something that isn’t about beer. Maybe I’ll try again to be a novelist instead!”
I went to the book shelf and picked up a novel by Chuck Palahniuk. I got as far as the dedication, which said something along the lines of “To my editor, for saying this is not good enough. Again, and again, and again.” I went to the bin, too out the envelope, and got to work.
That stage is still to come – Liz has promised me she will be as tough as she needs to be when she assumes the role of editor. So this is not the last wall. But it is the first. I think I’ve got over it. Or through it. Now I just need to go on.
My new book The Meanings of Craft Beer: Why The Term ‘Craft Beer’ is Completely Undefinable, Hopelessly Misunderstood and Absolutely Essential, will be published in e-book, audiobook and print-on-demand formats globally on 25th June. It really bloody well will.
I’m writing and self-publishing a book during lockdown, and sharing my experience with anyone else thinking of doing the same, especially if it’s the first time you’ve tried. This week: getting closer to the real words.
Word-count at the start of week 3: 21581
I started this series of blog posts by showing how I plan a book on my wall using post-its. To show what happens next, I need to jump back a bit.
This book was inspired by my having read one book in the stack above: Cræft, by Alexander Langlands. As the idea took shape, and grew from a rough talk to a scripted slideshow presentation, and then to a long essay and finally into a book-length treatment, so my reading expanded. I think this is only the second time I’ve had a book idea directly as a result of reading someone else’s, but even if a book I telling the story of me taking a physical journey, I always do a lot of desk research before I set off. My reading for this project has been going on for about a year now.
The first few weeks of the process are great fun. I usually start off with one book, or maybe a Wikipedia entry, and check the sources and bibliography for other titles. Certain books are mentioned again and again, and you soon realise these are the pre-eminent books in their field. I tend to be a bit of a generalist with my own books, covering a broad area, so I’m never that worried about finding someone else who has done exactly what I’m aiming to do.
Once I have a list of every book I need, I can pick them up pretty cheaply. If you haven’t come across it, AbeBooks is an aggregator of thousands of bookshops around the world. Unless one of the titles you’re looking for is particularly rare, you can usually pick up any book for less than a fiver, including postage. If you’re looking for something old and out of copyright, there’s a good chance you can download a PDF or kindle of it for free from sites such as the Gutenberg Project.
The above photo shows the main pile of books I’ve used on this project.
Once I have my books, I have a fairly laborious research process that I would love to improve upon, but haven’t been able to. I read each book with a pencil in my hand, marking the passages I think I might want to directly refer to, and writing any thoughts that occur to me while reading in the margin. After I’ve finished each one, I sit with the book at my desk, and write up a set of notes, each book in a separate word document, copying out the marked passages and either paraphrasing them or typing them as direct quotes. I write up my marginalia in italics so I can see what were my own thoughts and insights and what I’m taking from the text itself. At a certain point, when I think I have enough research (and it’s never easy to drag yourself from the research to the writing phase) that’s when I go through all my notes and generate the famous wall of post-its, to which I add much more of my own material, notes from travel if I’ve done any for the book, and so on.
I detailed last week how I get from a wall of random post-its to an outline of the book in a word document. At this stage, I would love it if I could just start writing, referring back to my notes as and when I need to. On an article, that would be easy. But for a 50,000- to 100,000-word book, the scope of it, the expanse of it, is simply too much for me to keep in my head at this stage. I think this is why so many people who would love to write a book are daunted by the prospect: how do you keep any kind of coherence over such a long slog?
By the time I’m close to finishing writing a book, the whole thing is alive inside my brain. I know where every key point is, almost down to the page number. I can almost see the shape and structure of the book in my head, and turn it in virtual space to look at it from all angles, checking the joins and the flow. But when I’m in that state, there’s no room for anything else in my brain. If my wife pops her head round the door and asks if I’d like a cup of tea, I forget my name and what day it is, and find myself completely unable to answer. This is not a good place to be for any longer than a week or two. So to get to that state at the right time, I have to use more tricks.
(By the way – if you’re writing a book that’s more of a reference or guide, you don’t need to worry about any of this. If you know you’re writing a guide to, say, the best 300 beers from Belgium, you know how long each entry has to be and what information has to be in it. It’s no less of a slog, and the monotony of it brings its own special endurance challenges, but at least the route is clearly marked out for you. With a long-form narrative – fiction or non-fiction – you have to lay down the road before you can travel upon it.)
So here’s what I’ve been doing over the last week.
My notes from books gave me my post-its, and the post-its gave me my outline. But by the time I’ve written the outline down, I can’t remember who said what or where most things come from. At this stage, I have no option but to go back to my notes and go through them in detail to start fleshing out the outline.
I’m learning a lot of new stuff here, in a subject area I haven’t explored before. I’m not yet quite confident enough with the fine detail. The structure is different from anything else I’ve written in that it’s not a story – chronological or based on a journey or whatever – it’s an argument. So I know the book falls into parts 1, 2 and 3, and that part 2 itself splits into an intro and three main sub-parts: (o), (i), (ii), and (iii). So I go through every page of my notes, and mark up which part of the book each point belongs in.
As I write or cut and paste each point across, I put a line through it.
Often, as I’m copying a point across, or I put two previously separate bits together, it will spark a thought and I’ll write a sentence, a paragraph, or even a page or two. Every single rush or spark of inspiration is precious, so I let it run its course before going back to transcribing the notes. Anything that’s cut and pasted joins the italicised outline, to distinguish it now from my own text in the main font.
I’ll be honest: this bit doesn’t feel like proper writing. But by the end, I know that, say, part 2(i) is all about the nineteenth century Arts & Crafts movement and that every point I have about Arts & Crafts is in part 2(i) of the document, in approximately the right order. I now have a 20,000-word manuscript, some of which has random outbursts of writing which hopes to make it to the finished text, the rest of which still needs to be rewritten and joined up into a proper narrative.
So that’s the boring bit out of the way. I have nearly everything I need in the document that will eventually become the book. Next task: actually write the bastard, in my own words.
The Meanings of Craft Beer: Why the term ‘craft beer’ is completely undefinable, hopelessly misunderstood and absolutely essential, which be published in e-book, audiobook and print-on-demand formats globally on 25th June.
In early March, after a boozy February, I’m hoping that this year will finally see some permanent changes in my drinking habits – after all, it’s never been easier.
For a while back there, I almost didn’t want to start drinking again.
The dramatic fall in my Fitbit’s resting heartbeat rating brooked no argument. It’s never been that low before. I felt fantastic. I’d lost a stone in weight. And thanks to the best range of alcohol-free beers I’ve ever seen, I didn’t often feel like I’d stopped drinking beer.
People can get defensive in conversations about how much you drink. The hysteria and lies from the anti-alcohol lobby represent a gross and disgraceful distortion of the facts surrounding the scale of the problem they supposedly care about, but that doesn’t change the fact that working near alcohol can pose a danger of you don’t stay in control of it. 14 units a week may be an utterly ludicrous weekly ‘guideline’ with no basis whatsoever in fact or research, but that doesn’t change the fact that 100 units a week is too much.
Unlike the lower figure, that higher one is not plucked from thin air with no justification: it’s a figure I exceeded every week when I kept a units diary through November and December. I know various people who won’t keep a diary of their alcohol consumption because they’re too scared to see the results. I’d suggest that’s the best possible reason to keep one.
I’ve written a lot about the pros and cons of Dry January before. I don’t need to justify yet again why I do it, and why I’ve done it for twenty years now. But I thought this year’s observations might be useful.
For most of us, alcohol is largely benign – yes, really. As young adults we experiment, we feel the exhilaration. We go too far. And then, when we get older, we modify. Many people I speak to have kids, and that’s when their consumption falls dramatically. Liz and I never did, and we’re happy with that. Many people find the responsibility of work to be a counter to their drinking. I find work to be an active driver of my drinking.
I love booze and I plan on never giving it up. As I write this, I’m half-cut, in the zone where the typing is sloppy but the words flow freely and I feel the weight in them as I write them, rather than tossing them off casually. I love drinking. I love alcohol. I love it so much that I still drink it like I did when I was in my mid-twenties. I’m now 51, and looking to make some careful changes.
Yeah, so Dry January made me feel fantastic, a much-needed reset, and fuck anyone on either side of the debate around alcohol who has a problem with that.
But this year, I want some of that for the rest of the year too. I have said this before and failed. I don’t want to fail again.
February was booze-soaked and brilliant, but I was alarmed at how shitty the mornings were, remembering the clarity of January. If you’re reading this thinking “I don’t need to do Dry January because I drink in moderation all year round,” good for you – I want to be more like you. But I spend way more of my time in pubs and around beer than you do, and the temptation, the tendency, the titillation, to drink rather than not to drink is there every single day.
That’s why the advent of ranges of beer that taste just like beer but have none of the alcohol has been so brilliant. That’s why I didn’t just get through this year’s Dry January; I actively enjoyed it. And it’s why I hope to take some of the behaviour with me through the rest of the year.
I’ve found that if you can go to a pub and drink something that tastes like a really good beer, by the pint, and it only contains 0.5% alcohol, you still get a social buzz. To those who take to social media to whine defensively that there’s no point drinking beer if you can’t get pissed from it: you’re wrong. All I want from a first pint is the sense of reward, the weight of it in my hand, the coolness spreading through my skin, and then the whiff of hops on the nose before a greedy glug, wondering how much of the pint I’m going to do on one go, the dust-destroying hit of bubbles at the back of the throat, exorcising the stress of the day. If you can deliver that, it doesn’t matter what the ABV is. And given that that pint is getting destroyed in about fifteen minutes, it’s better all round if it’s low ABV.
I now do drink-free days regularly, and I go to the pub anyway. I’ve had a few sessions where I’ve been drinking nothing but AF pints. The buzz, the warmth, the opening up, are all still there. The only difference is, after three pints I feel like I’ve done the evening, got all I want from it, and I go home. When I’m drinking alcohol, this tends to be the point where conversations enter loops. Drunk, or even tipsy, we might enjoy going round them again. Sober, an early night appeals. Both are fine in their own right. Either would get boring for me if that’s all I did.
So I’m writing this in support of AF beer and cider becoming part of my life and yours on a year-round basis. If I could have the nights I had in January three or four nights a week year round, and the nights I used to have all the time before then three or four nights a week year round, that would be perfect. Maybe you do, and I’m happy for you. But if, like me, you spend most of your time in and around pubs and beer, here are five AF drinks that – if you can find them – will give you sober days without making you feel like you’re missing out.
Brooklyn Special Effects
I’ve drunk my body weight in this recently. We ordered it from Ocado by the case when it was on promotion for £1 a bottle. You simply forget you’re not drinking full-strength beer – it tastes better than most 4% or 5% beers I’ve tried recently. A remarkable feat.
BrewDog Hazy AF
Punk AF isn’t bad either. But once you nail the flavour (and lack of off-flavours) in AF beer, the one deficiency most of them still have is that the lack of alcohol makes them feel thin on the palate. The lactose, oats or whatever else brewers add to make hazy beers feel thick and smooth counteracts that here, giving a satisfying mouthfeel as well as a very ‘now’ flavour profile.
Lagunitas Hoppy Refresher
Not a beer at all, but a soda water with the same hop addition they use in Lagunitas IPA. OK, so it’s not available in the UK yet because of cost and price point issues, but I was chugging this every day when I was in California last year and brought bottles back in my case at the expense of leaving some very nice IPAs behind.
Andechs Weissbeer Alcohol Free
See BrewDog Hazy AF above – if you prefer a weissbier to a hazy boi, the same thing applies here – the weight of the body is no different from a normal weissbier, making this feel and taste like there’s no compromise at all. Erdinger AF is not bad, but this one is really, really good. Imported by Euroboozer.
I delight in telling my friends at Heineken that this tastes no different from normal full-strength Heineken. They can’t work out whether I’m praising the AF version or dissing the full-strength one. Or both. It’s never going to be a beer you love, but if you find yourself stuck with a mainstream selection, this is a massive improvement on Becks Blue and all the rest.
Honourable mentions also go to Adnams Ghost Ship 0.5%, Thornbridge Zero Five, Lucky Saint, and the whole Big Drop range.
Really good AF drink are still difficult to find – hopefully this will change soon. But if you want to stock up at home, Dry Drinker have the biggest range. If you want to find places that stock decent drinks while you’re out, Club Soda have got your back.
In a troubled market, the East London brewer announces it has doubled its cask ale sales. How? By doing the things everyone knows need doing.
Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with my long-standing involvement in the Cask Report. For the last few years, the picture has been grim. Cask – once the best performer in a declining beer market (i.e. it was in decline, but at a far slower rate than any other beer) – is now falling far faster than any other beer, with double-digit year-on-year decline.
Pundits often point to the fact that cask is unreliable, and with the rise of craft beer, drinkers can now choose flavourful, interesting beer that – even if you believe is not quite as good as cask at its best – is certainly far, far better than cask at its worst. Pubs often don’t keep cask well because it requires more work, and what’s the point of that when it offers the lowest margin of any beer on the bar?
The arguments go round and round, the same every year, as cask ale sales continue to dwindle.
So what a delight this morning to hear from Five Points that they have DOUBLED their cask ale sales year-on-year.
In 2018, cask accounted for 20% of Five Points’ beer sales. In 2019, this grew to 26%. In the context of an undisclosed expansion in production over that time, cask is taking a bigger slice of a substantially bigger cake – according to the company, an increase of 325,000 pints versus the previous year.
Well, as one of the darlings of the craft beer scene, whenever Five Points have gone to festivals, cask has always been part of their offer. Their core range are all available on cask as well as keg.
Then last year, they introduced a new beer, available only on cask. As the craft beer world goes crazy for novelty, this beer was a best bitter – possibly the least fashionable style craft geeks can imagine.
And it went crazy.
I first realised they were onto something at last August’s Great British Beer Festival, when they had two versions of Five Points Best – one brewed with Fuggles hops, one with Goldings.
They sourced these ‘boring’, ‘twiggy’ British hops directly from Hukin Hops in Kent, a fourth-generation hop farm where the fourth generation is bringing fresh ideas to an ancient trade. And guess what? If you treat these classic British hops with the same care and attention as American hops, they’re just as good – who would have thought? Different, yes, subtler, absolutely, but not boring. And definitely not twiggy.
In terms of presentation, cask and keg sit alongside each other in the company’s portfolio, with the same enthusiasm around each. Five Points sell their cask beers to local pubs with a reputation for keeping cask well. This year, they’re introducing cask training for the publicans that stock their beers, financial incentives for new pubs to start stocking them, and a Cask Ambassador in their sales team to help pubs maintain quality.
This is what good cask ale look like. And the thing is, it’s all there in the Cask Report, every year, that this is what you need to do to make a success of cask.
I’m not saying that Five Points is the only brewery making a success of cask ale – talking to publicans across the country who are passionate about cask when I was doing research for last year’s report, their stories were so positive I almost started to doubt the official figures on cask’s plight.
But Five Points are at the absolute heart of London’s craft beer scene. They don’t need to invest in cask; they do it because they want to. Today’s announcement about sales figures is not just significant because of the extent it bucks the prevailing trend. It chimes strongly with me because it proves what we’ve been saying in the Cask Report for years:
One, there’s no massive prejudice against cask, you just have to give people a reason to try it, to make it relevant to them.
Two, cask belongs inside the broader scope of craft beer, not in opposition to it.
And three, there’s no mystery to making a success of cask. All you need to do is give enough of a shit about it.
Also, Best Bitter goes astonishingly well with the pizzas at the Pembury Tavern. See you there next month.
I got invited to a birthday party in Burton-on-Trent that was quite unlike any other – a mass tasting of six legendary beers known as the ‘Bass Corkers’.
On 16th December 1869, Ratcliff Ale was mashed in at Bass, Ratcliff & Gretton in Burton-on-Trent to celebrate the birth of a son to the Ratcliff family. It was a fairly common tradition in brewing families for such beers to be brewed ready for when these scions reached their majority at the age of 21. The story I heard was that young Master Ratcliff never made it that far, so the beer was never opened.
On 16th December 2019, I’m in Burton to drink some Ratcliff Ale on its 150th birthday, along with five other variations on these beers designed for ageing, know to connoisseurs and collectors as the ‘Bass Corkers’.
Bass fan and Burton beer historian Ian Webster, ably assisted by passionate fellow Burtonian beer collector Gary Summerfield, wanted to commemorate Ratclliff Ale’s anniversary, and put an appeal around Burton. Burton responded, with people donating scores of bottles – a total of 75 beers are opened for tonight’s audience of 100 or so people. This is an incredible act given that some of these bottles trade on EBay for £300 or more. I thought I knew these beers well, but I’m astonished to find there are pint bottles and quart bottles, with the occasional ultra-rare magnum.
The way these strong ales were made was to boil the wort for twelve hours, reducing the liquid to create a very high concentration of fermentable sugars. This led to an alcohol content of around 12% ABV which, aided by heavy hopping rates, vastly reduced the chances of microbial spoilage as they aged, according to Burton Brewer and Chairman of the National Brewery Heritage Trust, Dr Harry White. Harry explains the difference between the effects of microbiological spoilage – infection that means the beer goes ‘off’ – and the effects of ageing, which is all about oxidation.
Oxidation as ‘a complex series of interactions’ that begin with whatever oxygen is left in the bottle when it is sealed. There’s always some, and a bottle-conditioned beer needs it to start its slow, secondary fermentation. The yeast mops up the oxygen during this process, but then, when there’s nothing left for it to eat, it dies. When beer is a few years old it can taste stale, papery, or wet doggy. But there’s not a straight line into old age and decrepitude – other reactions continue to happen, and various different aspects of the beer come and go in a process John Keeling, when he was head brewer at Fuller’s, likened to sine waves, during vertical tastings of Fuller’s Vintage Ale. Those tastings were truly memorable – but even the most venerable Vintage Ale – from 1997 – is fifteen years younger than the most youthful Bass Corker, which is…
Prince’s Ale, 1982
Starting with the youngest first, the idea is you get some kind of progression. This 37-year-old, brewed to commemorate the birth of Prince William, tastes more like a three-year-old barley wine. There’s chocolate and caramel on the nose, some fruity notes reminiscent of ruby port, and no hint of papery oxidation at all. It tastes different rather than old, with a hint of meaty umami character, some acidity, but mainly a warming, welcoming fusion of malt character, alcohol and microflora.
Princess Ale, 1978
This has a much paler caramel colour than its younger sibling. It’s much lighter on the nose, toffeeish, with hints of spice and incense. On the palate it’s lighter again, with a bitterness that’s curiously tannic rather than hoppy. Overall, it tastes old and woody – not as engaging as the beer four years younger, but just as drinkable. Maybe it’s something to do with Princess Anne having mashed the beer in, given that she doesn’t like beer.
Jubilee Strong Ale, 1977
This is much darker again, chocolate-coloured. There’s a little tartness on the nose, which reminds me of Rodenbach, and a bit of smokiness. On the palate, it’s sweet, sour and bitter – I swear there’s still a bit of hop character to it – and something that is not directly derived from hops, barley, Burton water OR Bass ale yeast.
I’m on a tasting panel with Roger Protz and a selection of former Burton Brewers. My old friend Steve Wellington – another former brewer and the man who recreated A 19th century Burton IPA for the voyage to India I recounted in Hops & Glory – is in the audience. Steve once told me that when you taste aged beers, you get a different reaction from professional brewers than you do if you assemble a broader panel of taste experts – and so it proves with this beer. The brewers up here speak of mild infection, of something getting into the bottle that shouldn’t be there. Whereas I’m thinking that Brettanomyces means ‘British fungus’, so named because it was originally associated not with Belgian sours, but vatted strong British ales. This beer reminds me that Rodenbach – one of the finest sour beers in the world – took its original inspiration from none other than Greene King.
Prince’s Ale, 1929
Why was there a jump of fifty years between this beer and the previous (or rather, subsequent) one? I don’t know. The war was an obvious factor, but why was there not one for the Queen’s coronation? I can vaguely remember her Silver Jubilee and the incredible wave of patriotism that came with it. It was also around the same time that a large stash of the 1902 Kings Ale was discovered in Bass’s cellars, so maybe that inspired the idea for the start of the second wave of corkers that ran from 1977 to 1982.
But now we’re on to the end of the first wave, mashed in by Edward, Prince of Wales, who went on to become king for a few months before abdicating to marry an American divorcee. It had the shortest brew length of all the corkers, and is therefore the rarest. Apparently, it was still on sale in 1945, for £5 a bottle. or over £200 today – one for people who moan about ‘modern over-priced craft beers’ to think about.
Well, if I had a spare £200, I’d pay that for a bottle today. The nose is of dried fruit – dates, prunes, figs and currants – with a hint of church incense again. The fruity character is intense, combining the complex sweetness of dried fruit with the sourness of overripe fruit. Then there’s an umami meatiness that some of my colleagues on the panel describe as marmite.
I’m not so sure.
There’s a moment of panic whenever you’re trying to taste something with the aim of identifying that taste and communicating it to others. It’s the moment when your taste buds and olfactory bulb all flash with sensation and send blind signals deep into your cerebral cortex, and your brain seeks to contextualise what you’re experiencing versus your established knowledge and memory. When you’re primed to expect a particular flavour – when you know what you’re drinking and what it’s meant to taste like, or when someone asks you to look out for a particular flavour note – the brain usually identifies it straight away, or thinks it does. ‘Marmite’ is a common flavour note for aged beers, and if you know this, you can detect it and tick it off – flavour successfully identified. But if you didn’t know this, I’m not sure Marmite is what you’d pull out here. I’m conscious that I’ve already used it as a flavour note myself, but Marmite is a shortcut, an easy port of call, similar to when we categorise and tick off the complexity of lambic beers with the term ‘horse blanket’. It often stops us from probing further. This is spicier yet subtler than Marmite, the meatiness just one component of something broader.
King’s Ale, 1902
The danger with the Bass corkers is you can never be quite sure how well the contents stand up. If the wax seal around cork has broken, it’s probably not worth it, as the beer will have been assaulted by oxygen over the years. So you look for the wax seal – but how do you know it wasn’t broken, and then resealed by someone decades later? When it comes to the Kings Ale, brewed by Lord Bass’s mate Edward VII, there’s an easy way to tell: the original bottlings came with a lead seal, and that’s what we’ve opened tonight.
I opened a bottle of Kings Ale in 2009, to celebrate winning Beer Writer of the Year for the first time. There’s a blurry video of it on YouTube somewhere. My bottle didn’t have a lead seal. It poured with the look and consistency of gravy and tasted like of cork, marmite – for real this time – and death.
Tonight’s is… better than that. There’s a big waft of balsamic vinegar on the nose, and a surprisingly yeasty element. Umami here is not marmite, but porcini mushrooms. There’s chocolate, acidity and fruit on the palate. It tastes like an older, raggedier version of the Prince’s Ale, which makes sense. But still, it’s far from unpleasant.
Ratcliff Ale, 1869
These bottles were originally sealed with red wax, so if your wax is black – like one of mine at home is – that means the contents may not be good. This one smells really clean, and pours bright and clear, like Madeira. The now-familiar incense is there, and it smells like Christmas cake. There’s bitterness and acidity, coffee and spice, alcohol heat, Madeira wine, and elements I simply don’t have the vocabulary for. It tastes like nothing else.
By the end, I’m surprised how much I’m feeling the effects of drinking a flight of 12% ABV beers. I’ve often heard that the alcohol decays and loses its potency in beers like this. My intense desire for sleep, and the spidery handwriting in my notebook, suggest otherwise.
I’ve tasted beers that are alive and vibrant, and I’ve had beers that taste dead and decayed. The beers we’ve tasted tonight are somewhere between, having visited both poles before embarking on their own, unique journeys. There’s far more here than the effects of oxygen-driven ageing: these beers are complex processes. Tate two different bottles of the same beer, and their character can be quite different. It reminds me of the ‘generative music’ experiments created by Brian Eno, where a few simple elements are fed into a randomising system to create something that is ever changing, never quite repeating. Here, tiny differences in the microflora in each bottle can lead to ever-widening variations over time, magnified by the conditions in which each individual bottle matures – temperature, humidity, whether it’s stored upright or on its side, and so on.
Will there be more Bass corkers? Could there be? Well, the Queen’s Ale for Brenda’s 50th Jubilee was bottled in 500ml with a crown cap, but is still well worth seeking out. Apart from that, around ten years ago, Steve Wellington invited me to brew a new batch of Bass No.1 Barley Wine – the original recipe for Ratcliff Ale. We loaded an incredible amount of malt into the mash tun and left it for its 12-hour boil. A curry and a few hours’ sleep later, we were back in the brewery and running off a thick, dark wort that looked and smelled amazing. A few weeks later, Steve, almost tearful, informed me that it had been so long since the Bass yeast had had to contend with such a mighty wort, it simply hadn’t been up to the task. Fermentation hadn’t taken place, and the batch had had to be poured away.
And that’s not the only problem.
In the complex world of corporate beer trademarks and ownership, the archive of Bass recipes is now owned by a different company from the people who own the Bass brand. Anheuser Busch-Inbev continue to commit many travesties with Bass, but ABI has more than one face and more than one set of opinions. Mike Siegel of Goose Island is genuinely passionate about recreating old beers from the past, as evidenced by his recent collaboration with Ron Pattinson and Wimbledon Brewery’s Derek Prentice, the wonderful Obidiah Poundage. Mike recently asked Molson Coors – owners of the Bass archive – if he could gain access to old Bass recipes with a view to reviving something akin to these legendary corkers, and was given a pretty categoric and final refusal.
Earlier tonight, Harry White made a heartfelt plea to the audience for the archives to be used much more.
Come on guys, it’s Christmas – let’s join the dots. And could whoever currently owns the famous Bass yeast get it to some kind of yeast gym in the New Year?
The print format of our beer magazine is taking a break. But it’s only a temporary one…
When Daniel Neilson created Original Gravity at the end of 2014, his vision was for a different kind of beer magazine, one that was like ‘your slightly more knowledgeable best mate, full of interesting, readable stories that appealed to both beer novice and expert’. It has always been singled out for the design by Adam McNaught-Davies (lindoneast.co.uk).
Pulling together a quality print magazine that consistently lives up to expectations is a lot of work — too much for one person. So at the start of 2017, Daniel brought on board award-winning beer writers Adrian Tierney Jones and Pete Brown, as editor and editor-at-large respectively. As a team of three, we raised our ambitions even further, with a lofty mission of attempting to become ‘the New Yorker of beer’. Big goals should always be out of reach — you have to try much harder to reach them, and we think we made some big strides, introducing fresh and incredibly talented voices to beer who had real human, engaging, often moving stories to tell.
OG is distributed to quality bars and pubs and is free to pick up. Every penny of production costs has to be met by advertising. We pay the writers we commission and hopefully, there may even be some profit left to split between the three of us. Achieving the required amount of ad revenue has been getting increasingly difficult. We don’t press the ‘Go’ button until we know there’s a surplus. Original Gravity #23 was due to drop in September, but it didn’t hit that surplus.
For the moment then, the UK print edition of Original Gravity is temporarily on hold (the Canadian edition launches in Alberta as well as Ontario next year). We still believe the model works, but we need to take time out and rethink it in the UK. In the meantime, we’ll be publishing original content on originalgravitymag.com, including commentary on issues in beer that we feel we want to talk about (as well as continuing with occasional Original Gravity Live events). At the moment there is no budget for new writers, so it will be Pete Brown and Adrian Tierney-Jones who will be putting in the words, which means that the message of OG that has been there from the start — independent, asymmetrical, unconventional — will still be heard.
A big thank you to all the advertisers, distributors, stockists, writers and readers who have supported us so far. We’re not giving up. And we’ll let you know as soon as OG is ready to return to print.
Last night I was invited to an exclusive beer launch. Exclusivity around beer – some beer, sometimes – is no bad thing. But that doesn’t mean you need to be an arse about it.
“Sorry mate, there’s a private party tonight, the bar’s closed.”
If you’re the poor bastard charged with being on the door with a clipboard, there are two ways you could handle your role.
One, you could say hello to anyone approaching the door and ask, “Are you here for the Bourbon County event?” If they say no, you could explain the bar is closed. If they say yes, you could then ask for their name and, if it’s there, tick it off the list. This is what happens at most events I go to.
The other way is to look at the person approaching the door, make a snap judgement, assume that this is a person who couldn’t possibly have been invited to this kind of party, and bar them entry, your voice making a rare downward turn at the end of the sentence, the word ‘closed’ being definite, with no hint of a question about it.
There’s no way this guy thinks I might actually be on the list on his clipboard – he’s making that very clear. Maybe it’s my body shape. Maybe it’s what I’m wearing. But I suspect it’s my age: I now look less like a craft beer drinker than a craft beer drinker’s dad who’s turned up with their lift home. (If you’re truly wondering whether something is fashionable or not, just observe whether ageism has crept into the scene yet.) Whatever it is, when the account exec from the PR agency was given his piece of paper on what to expect from an exclusive beer launch, I clearly wasn’t on it.
Happily after being made to feel like shit on the door, things improve rapidly.
Inside Goose Island Shoreditch, I’m immediately welcomed with a glass of smoked porter that the resident brewer, Andrew Walton, has created for the season. He likes dark beers. So do I. I wish more people did: it seems we can only have dark beers these days if they’re absolutely massive and/or incredibly complicated. But on days like this, when it’s already darkening outside and the roads and pavements shine blackly, it’s nice to have at least one drinkable choice that’s a little darker than a pale ale.
And dark beers are the order of the night tonight. The invite-only crowd is here for the 2019 launch of Goose Island Bourbon County. In a scene full of hyped beers that people queue for and then trade, with no small amount of instagramming and YouTubing, this is one of the hypiest. And with good reason.
Goose Island was a pioneer of whisky barrel-aged beers. First brewed in 1992 to celebrate the 1000th batch of Goose Island beer, it was aged in Bourbon barrels. Kentucky is south-east of Chicago, a mere four-hour drive from the brewery. As Bourbon barrels are used for the character of freshly charred oak, they can only be used once by whisk(e)y makers. Back in the nineties, any brewer wanting to use them to age beer had a ready supply. If you’re wondering whether Goose Island truly was a pioneer, when they first entered Bourbon County into the Great American Beer Festival in 1995, it was disqualified because it didn’t fit any of the style guidelines at the time.
Since then, the brewers have learned more about the process and played around with the different barrels available to them. Andrew Walton declares it to be ‘The most important beer Goose Island make.’ He tells us how Chicago’s baking summers and sub-zero winters are perfect for the ageing process, making the wood expand and contract, so the beer really gets into the wood, and the wood gets into the beer.
The sense of anticipation builds as Andrew leads a tutored tasting, beginning with two more dark beers he’s brewed here in the Shoreditch brewpub. The first, a stout brewed with sour cherries and tonka beans, is like a spicy Black Forest gateau, and I can’t decide whether it’s a perfect beer to go with dessert or dessert in its own right.
Nemesis is a Doppelbock aged in Madeira barrels, a collaboration with Orbit brewing, and it’s a revelation. As a lager, Doppelbock is obviously lighter in body than a stout or porter, and you might think it wouldn’t take the characteristics of ageing as well, but it’s buttery, rummy, juicy and fruity, with a huge amount of madeira character.
Finally, we get two vintages of Bourbon County: the new 2019, and last year’s 2018. Both were aged for a year in Bourbon barrels, but this year they played around with the mix: a combination of Wild Turkey, Heaven Hill and Buffalo Trace. The 2018 has a huge dose of marmite on the nose. It’s a familiar ageing trait, but it’s here by the bucketload. Then you get a bunch of flavours that all go together, and I realise for the first time that each one is a special treat to the people who love it: Bourbon, chocolate and tobacco, all sitting there together, the taste of a gentleman’s club or, more appealingly, the lounge of an upscale Scottish Highlands hotel. Standing around a waist height table in the brewpub, the beer screams for a big leather Chesterfield for full enjoyment.
The 2019 expression is very different. I think it’s the first time I’ve ever said this about a beer of 15.2% ABV, but it’s cleaner and lighter. The chocolate and vanilla characteristics are much more straightforward. It’s neither better nor worse than 2018, just intriguingly different. If you haven’t had the 2018 first, it’s a beer to finish the night on, especially if you haven’t had much else beforehand. It’s almost impossible to imagine having one of these to yourself, or drinking it in less than an hour if you do.
Anheuser Busch-Inbev have done a great deal wrong since they took over Goose Island in 2011. It feels like they don’t have a clue what to do with it. Once an absolute craft beer pioneer – Goose Island IPA is the beer I used to introduce countless people to craft beer a decade or so ago – it now feels like it’s lost its way and been eclipsed by its rivals. People always say this about beers that get taken over, and they’re not always right, but Goose Island IPA is definitely not the same beer it used to be. New launches such as ‘Goose Midway’ seem to be aimed squarely at the mainstream lager drinker while offering no real reason why they should choose it over Foster’s or Stella. The abbreviation to ‘Goose’ smells of the kids at school who say ‘my name is Steve but people call me The Space Cowboy’ when only Steve himself does.
But they’ve got a couple of things absolutely right, and they’ve done that mainly by not interfering with something that was working well. The barrel-aged programme – which includes Belgian-style fruit beers aged in wine barrels as well as the whisky barrel-aged stuff – produces beer after beer that is uncompromised and, almost without exception, stunning.
Mike Siegel, head of the barrel programme, is largely left to his own devices, as evidenced by the recent launch of Obidiah Poundage, a three-way collaboration between Goose Island, beer historian Ron Pattinson and Wimbledon Brewery’s Derek Prentice. These people had a great deal of fun making this beer at Goose Island’s expense – and also to Goose Island’s benefit.
The only real change that’s happened to the annual Bourbon County release is that there’s now more hype around it. The scarcity value of the beer has increased massively – given that I’m so old I look to some people like I shouldn’t be here tonight, I can remember simply going down to Utobeer on Borough Market and buying a four-pack. I did wonder at one point if I was imagining this, but I found the evidence at the back of my cellar:
Sadly the bottles are long gone.
The only intervention ABI seem to have made around Bourbon County is to put some PR agency thinking behind it. And I have to say, I think they’ve done the right thing here. Do I wish Bourbon County was cheaper and more widely available, like it used to be? Well… not quite. I wish I had some more of it in my cellar, but that’s different. It’s good that a beer that is so innovative, that takes over a year to make, that’s stronger than most wines, should have a halo of mystique around it.
There are literally thousands of different beers on sale in the UK right now. We don’t need all of them to be affordable and accessible. The existence of a few like this gives the beer scene an anchor in something truly special. And when Andrew says ‘This is my favourite beer to introduce non-beer drinkers to,” – yes, this 15% monster with huge dollops of wood and Bourbon character pressing in on an already complex beer – it’s clearly doing something for beer as a whole.
If you feel like treating yourself or a loved one, you can buy Bourbon County from Beer Hawk, seeing how it’s now also owned by AB-Inbev.
It’s time for the Cask Report again – and if you work in a pub, I need to know what you REALLY think about cask ale…
Over the next couple of weeks I’m conducting focus groups with people who work in pubs to find out what you think of cask ale on both a professional and personal level.
If you’re interested in taking part, I need you to travel to a central city location and give us about 90 minutes of your time, for which I can pay you £30.
The point is to be honest. All responses will be anonymised and nobody’s name will get back to their employer. I need to hear what you really think, not what you know you are supposed to say or what you might think I want to hear.
I need to make up quotas of people with different attitudes, and spread my research evenly across different locations.
So if you’re interested, please copy and paste the info below, fill in the answers to what suits you and either leave it as a comment below this post or send it to me privately via my contact form here. I need all parts answered in order to build up a balanced set of groups. I’ll then let you know if I need you asap – it depends on how many responses I get in each place/category.
Thanks in advance for your help!
1. I am in or prepared to travel to ((highlight or delete as applicable):
Nottingham (Thu 13th June only)
Edinburgh (w/c 17th June only)
2. I could be available at the following dates and times (highlight or delete as applicable):
Tues 28th May 11am 1pm 3pm 5pm
Weds 29th May 11am 1pm 3pm 5pm
Thurs 30th May 11am 1pm 3pm 5pm
Fri 31st May 11am 1pm 3pm 5pm
Thurs 13th June (Notts only) 11am 1pm 3pm 5pm
Fri 14th June 11am 1pm 3pm 5pm
Tuesday 18th June (Edinburgh only) 11am 1pm 3pm 5pm
Wednesday 19th June (Edinburgh only) 11am 1pm 3pm 5pm
3. Which of the following best describes your relationship with/attitude to cask ale? (highlight or delete as applicable):
“It’s a major part of the business in the pub I work in – it’s something we’re known for and I’m proud of how we keep and serve it.”
“We stock cask, but it’s not really a core part of our core business and I’m not particularly engaged with it.”
“The place I work doesn’t really do cask ale and I’m not really bothered about it.”
One of the biggest frustrations for brewers is when people who self-identify as lovers of good beer insist that it should always, without exception, be inexpensive. Is it fair to condemn this inverse snobbery? Or could the industry and beer communicators be doing a better job of explaining and justifying the high price tags attached to some beers?
Notwithstanding the steady descent of Twitter generally into a platform for people to get furious over trivia and hurl abuse at people they don’t know, there’s been a spat going on over the last few days between a couple of contrarians and a bunch of beer people over the ‘outrageous’ price of a beer someone mentioned.
I immediately intervened on the side of the industry people defending and justifying the expense of some beers, tweeting:
“I find it amazing every time someone who claims to love beer asserts that beer can never be worth more than what you pay for the average pint. I’ve never heard a wine lover declare that Chateau Lafite, for example, should cost the same as Blossom Hill.”
I steadfastly believe in the validity of this comparison. But looking at the sheer ignorance of the people we were debating with, two things occurred to me. One, yes, it’s probably not worth bothering engaging with people who for some reason have chosen to spend their precious time on this planet arguing with people they don’t know about subjects on which they are entirely ignorant. But two, the frequency with which this particular attitude surfaces suggests that perhaps we’re at fault too. It’s not just on social media: in pubs and bars, when there’s some strong, rare beer being sold in thirds or halves only, there’s always someone who works out the cost of a pint (even though you can’t buy a pint) and decries how outrageous it is. Sometimes it even makes national news. And yet, we never see stories about what a rip-off it is that a pub wine list has a house white at 13.5% ABV for £14 and another wine at £65 that’s also £13.5% ABV. Even those (perhaps especially those) who are ignorant about wine are quite happy to accept that some wines are intrinsically worth more than others. If asked to explain why, they might invent an answer, but they would probably be more likely to come up with an explanation that sounds plausible to their ears rather than crying foul on pricing.
That such people are unable to do the same for beer surely says more about them than it does beer, but we can’t let them shoulder all the blame. Some of the replies to these people have been impatient, perhaps even condescending, and I thought: why would we assume people would have this knowledge when, unless they’re avid readers around beer or visitors of breweries, no one has told them?
So, in a blog post that won’t make a blind bit of difference to the professional contrarians whose only motivation is winding people up on Twitter to afford the illusion that their sad little lives mean something, here are three examples, offered with the best intentions, to explain why some beers cost more than others. These are not the only three – but they’re the three that came to my mind first.
1. Some beers have more stuff in them than other beers.
Here’s an interesting stat: in North America, craft brewers account for around ten per cent of total beer volume brewed. But craft brewers buy 25 per cent of all the hops grown in America. That means on average, craft brewers put two and a half times as many hops into their beers as mainstream commercial breweries. That means the cost of the hops going into each pint is at least two and a half times higher. (Possibly more when economies of scale and sizes of contracts are taken into account.) If you don’t like hoppy beer, or don’t want to pay a premium for it, that’s your choice. But surely the financial logic is undeniable. And that’s before you take into account the extra expense of ensuring a very hoppy beer remains chilled from the point of packaging to the point it’s bought by the drinker, to preserve the freshness of the hops.
2. Some beers take longer to make than other beers
There are various examples of this, but let’s look at lager. The word ‘lager’ means ‘to store’, and it’s generally accepted that a good quality lager should be lagered, or conditioned, at low temperatures for at least four weeks. This is because the yeast throws out various flavour compounds as it’s fermenting and conditioning. But left long enough, the yeast will then reabsorb these compounds, leaving a fresh, clean beer that’s crisp and refreshing but still has flavour and character. Not only does the lagering process tie up your capital for weeks because you can’t sell the beer you’ve just bought all the ingredients for and paid someone to make, it needs to be stored at cool temperatures – around two degrees Celsius. Keeping huge rooms full of tanks at that temperature consistently costs a serous amount of money. Budweiser Budvar lagers its beers in this way for at least ninety days. Some mainstream commercial brands go from brewing to packaging in 72 hours. If asked, they’ll tell you that modern technology has removed the need for lagering time. But taste a properly lagered lager alongside one that’s been made in a few days, and you might be sceptical about this.
3. Some beers use rare or special ingredients or processes
Lambic and geueze beers were at the centre of the recent Twitter spat. There are many, means reasons why these beers are expensive compared to a mainstream lager, but I want to focus on just one.
Instead of adding laboratory-cultured yeasts to start the fermentation of sugar into alcohol, lambic brewers rely on the natural yeasts in the air around them. It’s not quite the same thing as sourdough versus regular bread, but it’s close enough for comparison. The air around us is filled with a swirling cocktail of microflora, and its composition changes depending on where you are. There are certain parts of Belgium where this airborne biome produces great results in beer: other parts, not so much. So beers in this style are tied to particular places. But the cocktail doesn’t just change depending on where you go; it changes depending on the time of year, too. In warmer months, the party gets a little crowded, and as well as the ‘good’ yeasts you want in your beer, there are lots of uglier critters floating around that will spoil the beer and made it undrinkable. This means lambic producers can only brew during certain months of the year. The traditional season runs from October to April, when the average temperature is between -8 degrees Celsius and +8 degrees Celsius. But global warming means this window is now narrowing: the unseasonal warm weather we’re having now is catastrophic for lambic brewers. At Cantillon, the world’s most famous lambic brewery, the limited brewing window has contracted from 165 days in the early 1900s to about 140 days today. Within that period, sudden spikes mean a beer has to get poured away. This is a small, family business – the beer you brew over 140 days – once it’s been stored for three years, matured and blended – has to support people’s livelihoods for the whole year round. Prices have to rise, or the company will go out of business.
I’m not denying that there are opportunistic brewers and retailers who are cashing in on the craft beer boom to sell beers at artificially inflated prices because there are people who are willing to pay them. But I offer these three stories as examples that not all beers are the same. Brewing is an extraordinarily complex process and the ingredients of beer are each complex in their own way.
As with anything you buy in the supermarket, there are cheap versions and expensive versions – if all you can afford is an Iceland spag bol at £1 for an individual portion, it would be wrong to judge. But surely you’d appreciate that a scratch-cooked version using better quality tomatoes and beef is going to taste better? Brewers face similar decisions to you. If you’re not interested or not able to afford the better quality stuff, fine. But it’s simply inverse snobbery to criticise those who would rather splash out.
If anyone is interested in learning more about beer’s complex and wonderful supply chain, and the incredible lengths growers, breeders and scientists go to help brewers produce great beer, try Miracle Brew:
You’ll never see beer in the same way again. I know I didn’t.