You wait ages for a book and then two come along at once. Here’s a new project I’m delighted to be working on with CAMRA Books: “The Art of Beer”.
In a perfect world, as a full-time writer of books you should be promoting the book that just came out, finishing off the next one, and planning the one after that, all at the same time. Lead-times are long in publishing, and a years gap between finishing one project and starting the next can easily turn into a three-year gap between the publication of one book and the next.
It never works out like that in reality. Timelines get stretched in some places and compressed in others. Coronavirus has really exacerbated this.
So: the paperback of my last book, Pie Fidelity, was published on 23rd April but thanks to warehousing and distribution issues related to lockdown it is only available this week. I’ll come back to that later in the week.
My self-published book, Craft: An Argument, is almost finished and will be published on 25th June.
And now I’m starting work on my next one. The Art of Beer will be a lavishly illustrated book about beer design and packaging, published by CAMRA Books in October 2020.
I came into beer from marketing and still occasionally get involved in consultancy on packaging design. As Chair of the Beer and Cider Marketing Awards, I’ve had the job of overseeing the judging of best beer packaging design sat a time when designers have thrown the rulebook out of the window. Now I get to celebrate all of this in book form.
It would be very, very easy to gather together images of the coolest craft beer labels and cans around at the moment, and fill a book with wonderful designs like these:
And we will certainly be doing a lot of that. This is book to be gazed at with longing.
But I wouldn’t be able to think of myself a a writer if that was all it did.
So while the book will major on beautify craft beer designs, it will also tell the story of beer design, labelling and packaging from when it really took off as a discipline in the late nineteenth century until the present day.
We’ll start with why brands became so important, looking in particular at why the UK’s first ever registered trade mark was for Bass Pale Ale:
The first UK trade mark
We’ll look at the theory of how branding is supposed to work, and the tricks designers use to make a product stand out from the competition, and make you desire it.
We’ll explore the how and why of beer logos:
Since 1964, the ‘e’ n Heineken has been tilted so it ‘smiles’.
Milton Glaser’s original sketches for the Brooklyn logo
We’ll talk about why some brewers prefer typographical designs, and how that works:
Devastatingly simple, universally admired, and much copied: The Kernel
And we’ll look at why certain picture-led routes are enduringly popular:
Local history is enduringly popular for cask ale
We’ll also be looking at the history of bottles and cans, the clever use of different bottle shapes, crown cap designs, and secondary packaging such as gift boxes, six-pack holders and so on.
If you are a brewer or design agency that is really proud of your design work, and you’d like it to feature in the book, please drop us a line on email@example.com. We have only two rules:
1. While we’re not limiting this to British beers only, any beer featured must be readily available on sale in the UK.
2. Whole there’s a lot to be written about poor or questionable design, this book will only feature designs that the team think are beautiful or are otherwise important in the history and evolution of beer design.
So please – sen us your beers! And if you’re a beer fan rather than a brewer and you think there’s a beer we should definitely feature, let me know. (And thanks to everyone who did so when I asked this question on Twitter and Facebook last week.)
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: a major milestone, and my experience of combining drinking and writing.
Final word count, Tuesday night: 53,572
I FINISHED THE FIRST DRAFT!
Ten days later than scheduled when I started, I reached the delicious moment of printing out the first iteration of the book. There’s still a long way to go: I reckon 8,000 to 10,000 of those words need to come out. There’s a lot of repetition, and a lot of digressions, some of which help, and some that don’t.
Even though most editors I work with now work online using Microsoft Word’s ‘Track changes’ tools, I like to start with a physical copy. A few weeks ago I talked about Stephen King’s book, On Writing. One of my favourite bits is his advice on what to do when you finally reach this point. He suggests a total change of pace – “Go fishing, go kayaking, do a jigsaw puzzle.”
Jigsaw puzzle it is then. I spent most of yesterday putting together a painting of Padstow Harbour.
But here’s the best part:
“How long you let your book rest – sort of like bread dough between kneadings – is entirely up to you, but I think it should be a minimum of six weeks. During this time your manuscript will be safely shut away in a desk drawer, ageing and (one hopes) mellowing.”
I don’t have six weeks. I’ll be leaving it for about four days. But it’s a lovely image, with wonderful results:
“If you’ve never done it before, you’ll find reading your book over after a six-week layoff to be a strange and often exhilarating experience. It’s yours, you’ll recognise it as yours, even be able to remember what tune was on the stereo when you wrote certain lines, and yet it will also be like reading the work of someone else, a soul-twin perhaps. This is the way it should be, the reason you waited. It’s always easier to kill someone else’s darlings than it is to kill your own.”
That phrase is King’s analogy for the hardest bit you will face if you write something book length: there will be a sentence or paragraph that you love, the best thing you’ve written. And it won’t belong in this book and you must cut it out. But that’s still to come…
To get to this point, I had to play with the famous quote in the title above. Like most great snappy quotes, it was never said by the person to whom it is commonly attributed. Ernest Hemingway was, if anything, a vocal opponent of trying to do good work while drunk.
But Hemingway wasn’t a drinks writer.
I’m not necessarily recommending writing drunk, but I thought it might be worth sharing my experiments and experience with it.
I normally write completely sober, in the mornings. But when I’m travelling, or covering beer events, my note-taking usually happens when I’m not. I wrote many of the notes for Three Sheets to the Wind while living up to the book’s title. It’s hilarious to go back through those old notebooks and see how my handwriting deteriorates as the day wears on:
The thing is, if you can decipher the writing, there’s some good stuff there. This went on to become one of my favourite passages in the book, because I managed to capture the giddy joy of closing down a bar in a strange city at 3am. Often, when we wake the next morning after a boozy night and can vaguely remember laughing till we were fit to burst, we know we had a good time but we assume whatever we are laughing at can’t really have been that funny – it was just because we were drunk. My experience of trying to record drunken nights revealed to me that when we are drunk, often we really are funnier – a lot of these notes made it into the final book, and it is without doubt the funniest of all my books.
That’s writing while drunk, as in, capturing the experience of drinking. But what about writing up your final draft? What about drinking as an accompaniment to writing, rather than the notes above, which are writing as an accompaniment to drinking?
The first thing to note is that the quote in the title falls into the common trap of treating drunk/sober as binary, when they are in fact two points tethering either end of a scale.
Think of inebriation as a graph, with the x axis as time and the y axis as some measure of how drunk you are. The path of inebriation follows a curve. One reason I’ve always loved beer is that it provides a gentler, more manageable curve than wine or spirits. I find that between one and three pints in, there’s a buzz of inebriation that seems to make the blood flow quicker and opens the synapses. Ideas flow more quickly, inspiration comes more easily. But I’m not drunk. Any more than three pints, and my typing becomes clumsy and my flow starts to become disjointed. It’s harder to focus. I rarely go beyond this point.
On Monday night, I did.
I hadn’t been happy with that day’s work. I was in bed with my eyes wide open, and I decided to get back up and do an experiment. I drank spirits and took the time to write very carefully and slowly, allowing the ideas to come but spending longer clearing up my typing than getting it down in the first place. I wrote till 4.30am.
The next morning, the few paragraphs I had were not nearly as good as I thought they had been when I wrote them. The flash of inspiration I thought I’d had was not nearly as bright as I’d believed. But there was something there, something that I hadn’t been able to reach while sober. More than that, I was in a different place in relation to the book than I had been the day before. Something from the night before had stayed with me. I wrote for the next ten hours straight, finished the first draft, and the last paragraphs I wrote are better than anything else in the book at the moment. Just as I had found my voice, I’d finished. But we still have the edit to go.
Apart from unlocking the inspiration I needed to finish, sometime around 4am I also had the idea to write this blog post. I’ll finish by transcribing the notes I left for myself, written in wonky capitals to ensure they would still be legible:
WRITE SOBER – IS THIS WORD WORKING HARD ENOUGH? IS THERE A BETTER WORD?
EDIT DRUNK – THERE IS NO EDIT DRUNK.
WRITE DRUNK – IS THIS WORD PLAYFUL ENOUGH? MIGHT THIS OTHER WORD TAKE ME SOMEWHERE I DIDN’T EXPECT?
EDIT SOBER – (I think I’m referring to the output of writing drunk here) RESULTS MIGHT BE BETTER THAN YOU THINK.
My new book Craft – An Argument: 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. The ebook is available for pre-order now. (Links in this post are to amazon.co.uk but the book is also available on your local Amazon site.)
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: shit just got real.
Word count at the start of this week: 43,530
Week six: the end of this week will be the halfway point in this project. And after the terrible doubt I wrote about last week, I believe I’m going to hit my completely arbitrary and self-imposed deadline.
There have been many important developments over the past week. The first is that Evan Rail, one of my favourite fellow beer writers, gently reminded me that in 2016 he self-published a short e-book called The Meanings of Craft Beer. I thought I had come up with this title, but clearly I was subconsciously remembering Evan’s. So my book is now called Craft – An Argument. If you are working on a writing project of you own, I strongly suggest doing an Amazon search of your proposed title before settling upon it.
Evan’s book starts off in a similar place to mine but then goes on a quite different journey around the topic – which is a huge relief. If you can’t wait until 25th June to read a thoughtful exploration of craft beer, please buy Evan’s book first.
Up to now, this series of blog posts has covered the process of writing. But alongside that, there’s a whole other work stream going on. My wife Liz normally runs the Stoke Newington Literary Festival. That isn’t happening this year, for obvious reasons, so this project is about giving her some structure as much as me.
She’s been busy.
Liz designed a range of possible book covers using Canva, and we settled on the brilliant design above. It’s free and easy to use, and even has some rights-cleared photography that you can use publicly if you pay a whopping 99p. You can of course use your own photos if you took some good enough ones pre-lockdown, but we didn’t.
This week we also bought ISBNs for each edition of the book: ebook, audiobook, and print-on-demand. You can publish a book without an ISBN, but if you buy one it allows the book to be tracked accurately and greatly increases you chance of third-party sales. In the UK, ISBNs are £89 for one or £164 for a pack of ten.
Having done that, we were able to upload the details of the ebook to Amazon and make it available for pre-order! This was a hugely exciting moment. It always is. It’s the first real manifestation of something that begins life as a thought in your head having a separate, tangible presence of its own in the world. It can now start doing things without you being there, interacting with other people without your knowing. Coming at this stage, just when the writing got so difficult, it’s a massive boost. The writing this week is fast, passionate and joyous. This is why I do it.
People often ask me how I feel about people buying my books through Amazon. We will be exploring other platforms and I’ll share details of these when we sort them. But for all the issues surrounding it, I wouldn’t have a career as a writer without Amazon. We uploaded the book to Amazon.com, and with a few clicks, it’s available anywhere in the world, through every manifestation of the site.
I’m hoping to finish the first draft this week. I’m about a week behind where I wanted to be, which is not too bad. Reading through the parts I’ve completed, they need so much more work on them. Bits I agonised over for days are flabby and confused on a first read. But it’s important to ignore that for now and just press on. Once the first draft is complete, I can relax, have a breather, then start again. This time next week, I hope to be able to share the joys of the editing process.
My new book Craft – An Argument: 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. The ebook is available for pre-order now. (Links in this post are to amazon.co.uk but the book is also available on your local Amazon site.)
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.