Category: Books

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

Miracle Brew – and me – to hit North America!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 18th October – Somerville, Massachusetts

An evening event with Aeronaut Brewing.

Thursday 19th October – TBC

Friday 20th October -Brattleboro, Vermont

An evening event with Hermit Thrush Brewing.

Saturday 21st to Sunday 22nd October – Toronto

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

Monday 23rd to Tuesday 24th October – Boston

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

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

| Beer, Books, Cider, Writing

Welcome to petebrown.net!

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

The tools of my trade.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

| Beer, Craft Beer, Hops & Glory, IPA

A Quick Blog Post For IPA Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

| Books, Events, Stokey LitFest, Writing

Book events this summer – and this weekend!!

I’m doing lots of events this summer – starting closer to home, then going further away. Some of them must be near you, surely…

For the eighth year, my wife Liz has organised the Stoke Newington Literary Festival, which happens this weekend, 2nd to 4th June. This year there’s a great line-up focusing on politics (there’s a lot of it about at the moment), comedy, music and food and drink, with lots more stuff about every subject you can think of, including a children’s programme featuring a Harry Potter birthday party and the chance to meet the actual Cat in the Hat, so there’s where I’ll be.

At least, that’s where I’ll be when I’m not doing my own events.

On Saturday afternoon at 4pm I’m chatting pubs with Kit Caless, author of the superb Spoon’s Carpets, which is far more than the novelty gift book it might initially appear to be. It’s a really great take on this love-em-or-hate-em institution.

 

We’ll be chatting all things pubs, including the Wetherspoons Paradox, and signing our books afterwards.Then at 6pm I’ll be kicking off an evening of beery fun at my It’s The Drink Talking Litfest event.

This is a loosely formatted beery chat show sometimes, and changes depending on what’s happening and who’s around. This year, the show is in two parts. In the first half, I’ll be talking to Henry Jeffries about his book Empire of Booze, which is about how Britain invented all the best alcoholic drinks, including the French ones.

 

Then, after the interval, I’ll be presenting my new book, Miracle Brew, which is published on 1st June. I’ll be talking hops, barley, yeast and water, with samples of beer and ingredients to savour.

I’m writing this on my way to make my Hay Festival debut with Miracle Brew tonight. If you’re in town, I’m also doing a signing at the fantastic Beer Revolution shop at 4pm.

Then I’m doing events around the UK, in Holland, South Africa, with some to be announced in the United States! Please do come along. All confirmed events so far detailed below.

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

‘Miracle Brew’ is coming – at last!

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

 

| Apples, The Apple Orchard

Long Read: The Forgotten Genius who Discovered the Apple’s Birthplace

When I wrote The Apple Orchard, there were edits. I wanted to give the origin story of the apple, but this was cut from the final book because by the time I’d finished it, The Apple Orchard was the story of my own personal journey of discovery through the English apple year, and this just stuck out in the narrative as something that didn’t belong. It was an important chapter in a book about apples, just not the book about apples that mine had become. I’ve been saving it for a while but as we’re at the start of blossom time, one of the most wonderful times in the apple year, I thought I’d celebrate by publishing this story here as a long read. The Apple Orchard has just been released in paperback and should be available now in all good bookshops, as well as here if you don’t know any good bookshops. I’m going to be talking about the magic and mythology of the apple at Herefordshire’s Big Apple Blossomtime celebrations on Monday 1st May. 

The Heavenly
Mountains

 
Let’s play a quick game of word association. I’ll say a word, and I want you to say the first word that comes into your head in response.
Okay, here goes:
Kazakhstan.
Did you think Borat? If you’re reading this in the second decade of the
twenty-first century, I bet you did. Sacha Baron-Cohen’s fictitious Kazakhjournalist is world-famous. Now let’s try it again, but you need to come up with a different word.
Kazakhstan.
Anything? Anything at all?
Weird isn’t it? Kazakhstan is the world’s ninth-biggest country, at 2.7 million square kilometres, it’s fractionally smaller than Argentina, almost as big as India, and nearly twice as big as the entire European Union. Yet all we know about it is a made-up comedy character. At the start of his book InSearch of Kazakhstan: The Land That Disappeared, Christopher Robbins challenges a fan of Borat, arguing that no one would dare portray such a negative racial stereotype of Jews, African-Americans or the Welsh. “Well of course not,” replied the puzzled fan, “That’s why he invented a country!”
Robbins goes on to illustrate how Kazakhstan suffers from our ignorance about ‘The ‘Stans,’ that mysterious and chaotic collection of states below Russia:
Was that the country where the president boiled his enemies alive? No, that was thereputation of the Uzbek president south of the border. Was it the place where
the president had golden statues made of himself and placed on revolving platforms to lead the sun? No again, that was next door in Turkmenistan. It was an anarchic, narco-state wasn’t it, embroiled in a permanent civil war? No, that was the fate of poor, blighted Tajikistan.
In fairness, our ignorance is hardly surprising. The Russian Tsars closed the country to outsiders during theirexpansion eastwards, and then it was swallowed by the Soviet Union. It was an incredible trick: the ninth largest country in the world simply  disappeared. And it’s re-emergence since the collapse of the USSR has had a profound impact on our understanding of the apple.
The first westerner to discover the great apple forests of Kazakhstan was Carl Friedrich von Ledebour, a
German-Estonian botanist and professor of science at Tartu University in
Estonia, who also founded its school of botany. The nineteenth century was a
time of scientific classification, of epic, years-long journeys to discover and
catalogue as many different species of everything as we could. Darwin’s
journeys aboard the Beagle may be the most famous of these voyages, because the
diversity he saw inspired his theory of natural selection, but he was only one
of many undertaking similar expeditions. Von Ledebour took a particular
interest in the flora of the Russian Empire, and became the first person to
catalogue it comprehensively. Within this study, he identified for the first
time a species he called Pyrus sieversii,
better known to us know as Malus
Sieversii
, the wild apple of Central Asia. He discovered these apples in
the Tien Shan, or Heavenly Mountains, tucked in the south-western corner of
Kazakhstan.
In 1854 the Russians built a fort
called Verniy (‘loyal’ in Russian) in the foothills of the Tien Shan Mountains,
to protect this far-flung corner of their empire. The fort grew, taking in
Russian peasants and Kazakh nomads who had been driven from their traditional
lands, and by the early 20th century it was a thriving city. In 1921
the residents voted to change the name of their city to Alma-Ata, which means
‘Father of Apples’, and in 1929 the city became the capital of Kazakhstan.
That same year, Alma-Ata received a
distinguished visitor. Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov was a botanist,
geneticist, agronomist and geographer, a brilliant scientist, hailed by some
who knew him as a genius. Having grown up in a poor rural village that was perpetually
hit by crop failures and food rationing, he was obsessed by food security and
the prevention of famine both at home in Russia and around the world. He
believed that the best way to understand plants and the potential for their
cultivation was to establish their original source in the world, and developed
an over-simplistic but not entirely inaccurate theory that the likely origin of
a species of plant was the place where today it shows the greatest genetic
diversity. Effectively, such places were nature’s laboratories, where different
permutations were worked through until the best ones were developed. Vavilov
travelled the world collecting thousands of seeds, and established the world’s
largest seed bank in Leningrad.
In 1929 he was travelling by mule
train across Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, attempting to reach western China via a
mountain pass. ‘The path turned out to be more difficult than we expected, and,
in fact, we lost two of the horses,’ he wrote later. ‘But somehow we reached
the northern slopes of the range where we found a road leading directly to
Alma-Ata.’
What he found there astounded him.
In Five Continents, the book that set
out his theory of plant origins, he wrote:
Thickets of
wild apples stretch out through an extensive area around the city and along the
slopes of the mountains, here and there forming a real forest. In contrast to
the small, wild apples of the Caucasus, the wild apples of Kazakhstan are
represented mainly by large-fruited varieties, not differing much from cultivated
species. It was the first of September and the time when the apple ripen. We
could see with our own eyes that here we were in a remarkable centre of origin
of apples, where cultivated forms did not rank noticeably above wild ones and
where it was difficult to distinguish wild apples from those cultivated. Some
of the forms in this forest were so good in respect to quality and dimensions
that they could be directly grown in a garden…
The slopes of the Tien Shan were,
he believed, a ‘living laboratory where one can see the evolutionary process
unfolding before one’s eyes.’
Five
Continents
was the most important book on plant origins ever published up
to that point. It had the potential to radically improve our understanding and
cultivation of important pants. But that didn’t happen. Instead, the world
forgot all about Vavilov and his sensational discoveries, just as it forgot
about Kazakhstan.
Vavilov’s problem was that he
believed science should be kept separate from politics. That may sound perfectly
reasonable, but Joseph Stalin, who came to power in 1924, disagreed. Around the
same time, Vavilov befriended an ambitious young scientist called Trofim
Lysenko. Eleven years younger than Vavilov, Lysenko was a peasant by background
who had gained his degree from a correspondence course. When he met Isai
Prezent, a political ideologue, their fusion of politics and science began to
find favour within the Soviet hierarchy.
By this point, the science of plant
genetics was well understood. Gregor Mendel’s work in the mid- to late
nineteenth century had established the basic principle of genetic inheritance.
Controversial at the time, it was rediscovered and elaborated upon in the 1900s
by a number of scientists, including British biologist William Bateson, with
whom Vavilov had spent time studying plant immunity.
Bateson was the first person to use
the term ‘genetics’ to describe the study of heredity, and was the main
champion of Mendel’s ideas once they had been rediscovered. So it came as a
shock when Lysenko, who Vavilov had once regarded as his protégé, rejected the
entire basis of Mendelian genetics. Lysenko falsely claimed to have invented
the process of ‘vernalisation’, where wheat varieties normally sown in winter
could be made to behave like those sown in spring. In reality the procedure had
been familiar to farmers since the early 1800s, but Lysenko made grossly
exaggerated claims about its efficiency. He also claimed that by changing the
conditions a plant was experiencing, you didn’t just change its behaviour; you
were creating a new species of plant, one which would pass on its new
characteristics to its offspring. In this way, grain that could only grow in
warm climates could be made to grow in cold climates too, and the Soviet food
supply could be guaranteed.
All this was rubbish of course. It
was little more than a rehash of Lamarckism, the idea that an organism can pass
on characteristics that it acquired during its lifetime to its offspring, which
had been destroyed by Darwinism. But in Soviet Russia, it was heralded as a new
‘Soviet genetics’, and Lysenko became the most influential scientists in the
USSR. Until the 1930s Russia had been a world leader in the advancement of
genetics. Now Lysenko dismissed mainstream genetics as ‘harmful nonsense.’
Stalin began working on a five-year plan to enforce the collectivisation of all
farms, applying Lysenko’s principles. Lysenko began praising his master in
speeches as ‘The Great Gardener.’
Vavilov shook his head in
disbelief, asking, “Is this some kind of religion?” If religion and science are
related in the ways they seek to understand and explain the world, this was a
cult masked as science. With no scientific proof, it was all about faith. It
appealed to Stalin’s sense that the Soviet machine could improve everything,
even breeding undesirable traits out of people. By 1940 Lysenko had
successfully eradicated any mention of the great 19th century
geneticists from school textbooks.
When the collectivisation
experiment inevitably failed, cognitive dissonance ruled the day. The problem
couldn’t possibly be Comrade Lysenko’s crackpot theories – someone must have
sabotaged the great experiment. Between 1934 and 1940, eighteen of Vavilov’s
colleagues were arrested, and almost every serious agricultural publishing
outlet was closed. Vavilov’s remaining colleagues, worried for their safety,
began to disown him. His research was cut and he was barred from travelling.
Finally, in 1940 Vavilov himself
was arrested and charged with being an anti-Soviet spy who had sabotaged crop
production. After days of 13-hour interrogations, he cracked and confessed to
trumped-up charges of wasting state funds, deliberately creating a shortage of
seeds and disrupting the rotation of crops. He was even accused of ‘damaging
the landing grounds in the Leningrad military region by sowing the airport with
weeds.’
Vavilov was sentenced to death,
which was later commuted to twenty years imprisonment. He died in a hard labour
camp in 1943.
By that time Leningrad had been
under siege for two years by the Nazis. Stalin had rescued the art from the
Hermitage ‘for the future enjoyment of all people,’ but he ignored Vavilov’s
seed collection at the Institute of Applied Botany and New Crops. Vavilov’s
remaining colleagues preserved large parts of the seed collection by hiding it
in the cellars, keeping it intact, refusing to eat the seeds even though nine
of them starved to death by the time the siege was lifted in 1944. Their
incredible bravery was for nothing: after the war the collection fell into
Lysenko’s hands, who allowed it to be ruined by the cross-breeding and
outbreeding of different strains.
Through the middle of the twentieth
century, advances in our understanding of plant genetics allowed food
production to soar around the world. When followers of Thomas Malthus predicted
that a rising population would result in global starvation by the 1970s, this
didn’t happen because the yields from fields and orchards rose faster than the
population did. In the USSR, until Lysenko’s demise in 1954, agriculture went
backwards. By the time of his death the Soviet Union was fifty years behind the
rest of the world in agricultural practice – surely a factor in its eventual
demise.
*
In 1929, when Nikolai Vavilov made
it into Alma-Ata after losing two of his horses, the residents tried to help
him by supplying more. As it happened, Vavilov declined their offer because a
colleague was on the way with motorised transport. But for Aimak Dzangaliev, a
fifteen year-old boy charged with looking after Vavilov’s fresh horses, the brief
encounter with Vavilov would change his life – and perhaps the future of the
apple.
Dzangaliev was amazed that an
eminent scientist from Leningrad would come all the way to Alma-Aty to look at its
apples. Seeing them through Vavilov’s eyes inspired Dzangaliev to study them
himself. After going to study with Vavilov in Leningrad, he returned to
Alma-Aty to continue the work Vavilov had started. He spent the next sixty
years with his wife, Tatiana Salova, cataloguing and researching Kazakhstan’s
fauna. They discovered that of 6000 species, at least 157 were either direct
precursors or close wild relatives of domesticated crops. They found that 90
per cent of all cultivated fruits in the world’s temperate zones had wild
relatives or ancestors historically found in Kazakhstan’s forests, in their
eyes confirming Vavilov’s by now forgotten theory that this was the birthplace
of the apple. They catalogued more than 56 native forms of apples, 26 of which
looked like purely wild ecotypes, with another 30 being natural or
semi-domesticated hybrids.
There was just one problem for
Dzangaliev: his beloved forests were disappearing. Since 1960 between 70 and 80
per cent of Alma-Aty’s wild forests have been lost to luxury apartments and
hotels, holiday chalets and summer cabins.
When the Soviet Empire collapsed,
Dzangaliev, now in his eighties, contacted plant scientists in the United
States and begged them to come and help save his apples. Phillip Forsline, a
horticulturalist at the Plant Genetic Resources Unit in Geneva, New York, led a
number of expeditions in the 1990s and was amazed by what he saw.
Apples don’t grow in apple tree
forests. They grow here and there, wherever the seeds fall. That’s why an
orchard looks so stunning: it’s something you don’t see in nature, the product
of human co-dependence with nature to produce something neither can on their
own. Unless, that is, you’re in the Tien Shan mountains. Dzangaliev welcomed
Forsline with a firm handshake and an astonishing passion and energy for a man
in his eighties. (He credited his health and longevity to a constant diet of
wild apples, eating at least one every day.) He led Forsline into Tien Shan’s
apple trees forests, and showed him dense clusters of trees that were 300 years
old, fifty feet tall with trunks as wide as oaks, still producing healthy crops
of apples. The variety of those apples was astonishing: dun russet and shiny
smooth, marble-sized and melon-sized, reds, greens, pinks, purples, yellows and
gold. Some of the wild varieties had grown as big as domesticated apples in the
west. From the samples they took, Forsline and his team estimated that the
apples in the rest of the world together contained no more than 20 per cent of
the genetic diversity on show in the Kazakh forests. Somewhere in that gene
pool may lie resistance to blight, scab, or pests which can be bred into our
favourite apple varieties, or even possibilities for the apple that we haven’t
yet thought to explore. At a time when ever-fewer commercial varieties are
cultivated widely, becoming less resistant to disease thanks to their
intensively monocultural breeding, the birthplace of the apple may well contain
its future.
In the early twenty-first century,
a series of researchers used molecular genetic markers capable of
distinguishing between species to establish that what Vavilov had deduced from
observation was correct: the domesticated apples cultivated across the Western
world had so much in common genetically with the wild apples of the Tien Shan
mountains that they were without doubt descended from there.
But why here? How can one spot produce
so much genetic diversity? Barrie Juniper, a plant scientist from the
University of Oxford and the first person to confirm Vavilov’s hypothesis on
the origins of the apple, has a pretty good idea. Around ten million years ago,
earthquakes and shifting tectonic plates began to create the mountain ranges of
Inner and Central Asia. At this time, an early form of the apple became trapped
on the rising land. The Tien Shan never glaciated during the Ice Ages, and was fed
by a constant supply of water from the snow pack above. Glaciers on one side
and emerging deserts on the other cut the region off from Europe and the rest
of Asia, but in this lost, fertile valley, plants and animals interacted and
cross-bred. As well as apples, the Tien Shan region is also remarkable for its
diversity and concentration of walnuts, peaches and a whole array of fruit and
nut varieties.
I never got to make the journey to
Kazakhstan mysslf, but I consoled myself by reading the many accounts written
by scientists who have been. Every one of them is filled with awe and wonder at
these forests, even in their diminished state. It’s hardly surprising – in fact
probably inevitable – that when he first saw the apple forests, Phillip
Forsline declared that they had found ‘the real Garden of Eden located in the
Kazakh mountains.’

 

| Books, Food, Miracle Brew, The Apple Orchard, Writing

New Book News: not for the first time, I’m trying to copy the great Iain Banks…

One of the greatest British novelists of the last fifty years, the late Iain Banks developed parallel tracks in his book publishing. Irritatingly and wonderfully prolific, he’d a write ‘mainstream’ fiction‘Iain Banks’ book one year followed by an ‘Iain M Banks’ book set in his stunningly detailed and intricate sci-fi universe the next. While my books obviously won’t be as anywhere near as good as his, and while they’re resolutely non-fiction (at least for the time being) I’m hoping to adopt a similar method…

As I’ve written before, I was extremely lucky to find in Pan Macmillan a mainstream, large scale, award-winning publisher who was willing to pay me to write several books about beer and promote them to a broad, general audience. I was in the right place at exactly the right time.

After three books that sold perfectly well but didn’t trouble any bestseller lists, Pan Mac asked me to adapt my style to broader subjects and themes. My agent agreed, and it sounded like a good idea to me too. My fourth book, Shakespeare’s Local, was a first step away from beer to broader social history. It was my most successful book launch at that point, and everyone felt they were right to gently encourage me to move further away from beer.

Since then, I’ve written books about cider and apples and pubs. But I missed beer writing, and I felt like an idiot that in the midst of a craft beer boom like nothing we’ve ever seen, I was moving away from the subject I loved.

So at the same time as writing The Apple Orchard – my last book, which is out in paperback next month – I joined up with innovative crowdfunding publisher Unbound to write a new beer book. I screwed up the timings quite badly, and ended up trying to write three books at the same time, but now I’m through the pain. The Apple Orchard did really well. (After long conversations with Pan Mac about it, we amicably parted ways and it was published by Penguin.)

Exploring nature and the rhythms of the year, I discovered a new lyricism in my writing that’s not always been there in the beer writing. So I want to do more along that line, at the same time as not giving up on beer. I want to have my cake and eat it (or should that be ‘I want to have my pint and drink it’?)

So: the Apple Orchard paperback is out on 6th April. I just got sent the paperback cover today, a subtle evolution of the hardback design, which I think is lovely:

 

And then, 1st June sees the launch of Miracle Brew, my first beer book in eight years, via Unbound:

 

I’m currently checking the page proofs of Miracle Brew for any last typos or errors, and realising that writing about other stuff in between – particularly apples – has definitely brought something extra to a book about hops, barley, yeast and water. I’m really excited to start sharing it with people. (Even though the book is fully funded, you still have a short time left to pledge here and get your name in the back and get other benefits. Or if you prefer to do things the old-fashioned way, you can pre-order it on Amazon here just like any other book.)

Books take a long time to write, and I’ve always struggled to get the period between books to shrink. But now I’m on a bit of a roll. So while this year will see me on the road promoting the Apple Orchard paperback and the new hardback of Miracle Brew, today I signed the contract on my next book, which should see the light of day in autumn 2018!

This one is with Penguin again, the follow-up to The Apple Orchard. I had two ways to go from that book: I could develop the whole nature writing theme more, or I could continue to expand from beer into a broader food and drink arena. While there are lots of very good writers in both disciplines, I felt nature was the more overcrowded, and food and drink the one I was more excited about.

So I pitched an idea in January, and it was approved and bought quicker than any book I’ve written to date. The roots of it go back at least seven years, when, touring Hops & Glory, I started getting invited to a lot more food festivals and events. And it’s based around the notion that food and drink form a large part of how we see ourselves – and in Britain’s case, point to a very confused and uncertain self-image.

It’s a global joke that British food is a bit crap – and Brits are at least as likely to say that as anyone else. When British people do stick up for their food, they usually point out that we have restaurants representing more different international cuisines in cities like London than anywhere else, or that British chefs are modernising and doing fusion with pan-Asian cuisine or ‘modern European.’ If they do celebrate traditional British dishes, they invariably add a cosmopolitan ‘twist’, just so everyone can be sure they’d never do anything as vulgar as simply make a traditional dish really well.

There are exceptions to this of course, but the general theme I pick up is that no one is that keen on celebrating traditional British food and drink. It’s why British craft beer fans will denigrate cask ale and British brewers would rather use American hops. Its why Somerset farmhouse cider is laughed at by people who adore Belgian lambic, when it’s almost the same drink in many ways. Its why a craft beer festival that is passionate about showcasing local brewers will have endless food stalls doing mac ‘n’ cheese, Texan barbecue and hot dogs, but not British street food such as pie and peas. It’s why France has more cheeses protected under the European Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) and Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) schemes than Britain does for all its food and drink put together, and why the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) still has absolutely no clue whatsoever about how it’s going to protect Melton Mowbray pork pies, Stilton cheese, Herefordshire perry and the rest of Britain’s protected produce once Brexit means they no longer qualify for the EU protections they currently enjoy.

And yet, when surveys ask people what their favourite meals are, the vast majority invariably come up with fish and chips, full English (or Welsh, or Scottish, or Northern Irish) breakfast, and Sunday Roast. In terms of consumption, this isn’t true of course: most of us eat Italian, or Chinese, or burgers way more often than we eat these staples. Large swathes of the population are far more likely to go to a faux-Italian coffee chain and have pain-aux-chocolats or croissants, or more recently, the heavily Americanised concept of brunch, than go for a full English. But when asked, these are the meals, along with Devon cream teas, cheese sarnies and bacon butties, that we still feel some patriotic pride about.

This brings up the whole issue of multiculturalism – curry has famously become defined as a British dish. But go back far enough, and what is British and what is multicultural start to blur. The first curry restaurant in Britain opened in 1809, only 15 years or so after it became socially acceptable for image-conscious Brits to eat potatoes.

To tie all these thoughts and themes together, I’m going to eat seven of Britain’s favourite meals in their ideal settings: full English in a greasy spoon, fish and chips by the seaside, Sunday Roast in a country pub, and so on. For each meal, I’ll explore its origins and history, why it became so important to us, and what it tells us about how we see ourselves and our place in the world in 2017. I’m starting work on it with a fascinating new reading list:

With this as-yet-untitled book due out in 2018, this establishes the beginnings of a pattern of annually alternating beer books and books with broader themes. I won’t go as far as differentiating them by calling myself Pete Brown in one strand and Peter S Brown in the other, but I hope it’s a pattern I’ll be able to continue for a few years – I have a very tentative conversation next week about a possible new beer book.

I hope at least one of these strands will continue to interest you. Thanks for reading.

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

Beer Writer of the Year

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

 

I even bought a suit.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

| Books, Events, The Pub: A Cultural Institution, Writing

The Pub – On Tour

My new book on pubs spans the whole of the UK. So it only seems fair to take it back to the places where it was researched.

Still need that elusive Christmas present for that difficult-to-buy-for person? Looking for an evening to kick off Christmas party season? I’m taking my new book (well, one of them) on tour.

 

The Pub is a coffee table, illustrated book that celebrates the unique cultural institution of the British pub. But it’s more than that. The main reason most people choose a pub is because of its atmosphere, but atmosphere is very tricky to write about. I’ve given it the best shot I can.

In these events, I’ll be reading a selection from the fifty short essays in the book that seek to evoke the atmosphere of the best pubs I came across – best in that respect anyway. These are not the best beer pubs or food pubs, nor the most historic or architecturally stunning (though many of them do score highly in these attributes.) They’re the pubs that feel special when you walk in, that feel like home, even if you can’t immediately figure out why.

But it would get dull if I just read out lots of short essays.

So I’ll also be illustrating my talk with a selection of the stunning photography from the book, giving you what I’m told is a fiendishly hard pub quiz to do, holding the Great Crisp Flavour Challenge, and contravening intellectual property rights with my travesty of Bullseye.

These are the dates we managed to fit in before Christmas. There are some glaringly obvious gaps here which I aim to fill in the New Year. (Norwich, Leeds and London being among the main candidates.)

 

These events are in association with Waterstones, who will be selling books at the events, and each pub is, obviously, one that features in the book. Admission is free but tickets need to be booked in advance, and are available from eventbrite.

I had such great times in these places while I was researching the book. Hoping to repeat the experience. See you there.