Category: Books

| Books, Cheese, Pie Fidelity

Long Read: A Tale of Two Cheeses

My new book, Pie Fidelity: In Defence of British Food, is finally published today after two-and-a-half-years’ hard work. To celebrate, here’s another off-cut that didn’t quite make the main text. One of the main themes of the book is that we don’t celebrate our food culture in the UK as much as other nations celebrate theirs. When I started researching the book, I realised I’d first written about this back in 2010, when I did a bit of research into European Protected Designations of Origin (PDOs) – the regulations that stipulate where and how something must be made if you want to give it a particular name, such as champagne, cognac or Cumberland sausage. I found the different stories of Wensleydale and Roquefort to be quite staggering I what they reveal. The Roquefort part below is intact on the book, but I went on to write at length about cheddar, so there was no room for my nine year-old story of Wensleydale. Here it is then, in its original form.

‘The term culture … includes all the characteristic activities and interests of a people; Derby Day, Henley Regatta, Cowes, the twelfth of August, a cup final, the dog races, the pin table, the dart board, Wensleydale cheese, boiled cabbage cut into sections, beetroot in vinegar, 19th-century Gothic churches and the music of Elgar. The reader can make his own list …’

TS Eliot,Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, 1948

One of France’s most celebrated cheeses is produced in Roquefort-sur-Soulzon in the south of the country. The town’s cheesy fame allegedly dates back to Pliny the Elder, who supposedly lauded it in his CE79 work, the Natural History

Pliny was certainly a fan of cheese generally, writing, ‘It is a remarkable circumstance, that the barbarous nations which subsist on milk have been for so many ages either ignorant of the merits of cheese, or else have totally disregarded it’. But what fans of Roquefort don’t tell you is that Pliny’s mention was ambiguous, and not exactly complementary. In a chapter where he details all the fine cheeses available in Rome, ‘where the various good things of all nations are to be judged of by comparison’, he says, ‘Goats also produce a cheese which has been of late held in the highest esteem, its flavour being heightened by smoking it. The cheese of this kind which is made at Rome is considered preferable to any other; for that which is made in Gaul has a strong taste, like that of medicine’. 

What we now understand to be Roquefort cheese is not smoked, and is not made from goat’s milk. When Pliny says this cheese was made in Gaul, that could mean anywhere in a region that today encompasses France, Luxembourg, Belgium, most of Switzerland, Northern Italy, as well as the parts of the Netherlands and Germany on the west bank of the Rhine. And anyway, Pliny didn’t like it that much because it tasted of medicine. This could mean he’s referring to the chemical hit of a ripe blue cheese, but even if that’s the case, it’s doubtful Roquefort cheese was unique in this. But never mind all that: if you’re marketing a food icon, when the legend becomes fact, we invariably print the legend.

Prehistoric cheese-making colanders have allegedly been discovered near the town of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, and what is undeniable is that it has the perfect conditions to make great cheese. The region is honeycombed with caves formed by faults in the mountain cliffs, and these faults channel a gentle flow of air into the caves that creates a fairly constant temperature of between eight and twelve degrees and keeps the humidity high. These are perfect conditions for the growth of a mould known as Penicillium roqueforti. This mould, plus reliable access to salt from the Mediterranean, led to the evolution the soft, blue, salty, cave-aged cheese we now know as Roquefort. 

The cheese was popularised by local Benedictine monks from the 11thcentury, and soon other monasteries in the area were buying caves to make their own. In 1411, Charles VI granted the town of Roquefort a monopoly for the ripening of the cheese in these caves – the first ever appellation d’origine– meaning only producers in the town could use its name. In 1961, a landmark ruling decreed that while similar maturation methods could be used across southern France, only those whose ripening occurred in the natural caves of Mont Combalou were permitted to bear the name Roquefort. On top of that, the milk must be whole and raw, the sheep it comes from must be Lacuane dairy sheep, and they must be fed on pasture.

Today, much of the economic activity in the region centres on the production and distribution of the cheese. A visitor’s centre run by the Roquefort Caves Society illustrates the process of making Roquefort cheese, gives a guided tour of the caves, and offers guests free samples and a chance to buy cheese. Despite still only being produced locally, Roquefort is enjoyed around the world and considered one of the best blue cheeses ever made. 

It’s a great story, a fantastic cheese, and a symbol of how food and drink can come to define a region, or even a nation. Now let’s compare that story to one of Britain’s most famous cheeses.

French monks also seemingly brought the art of cheese making to Wensleydale, in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales, when they settled in the region around 1150. The cheese they made was originally blue and made from sheep’s milk, allegedly because Norman nobles wanted a local equivalent to Roquefort. When Henry VIII dissolved their monastery at Jervaulx in 1540, the monks passed on the art of Wensleydale cheese making to the wives of the local farmers who had supplied their milk. In 1897, local merchant Edward Chapman became the first commercial Wensleydale cheesemaker when he opened a creamery in the village of Hawes. 

Wensleydale is now made mostly from cow’s milk with a little sheep’s milk added for flavour. The Hawes creamery in Wensleydale still makes a blue cheese among others, but since the 1930s the cheese we now think of as Wensleydale has been white and hard. It has an open, welcoming aspect to it, a crumbly texture, with a mild, clean, flavour that has faint hints of lemon and honey. It gets these characteristics from the local milk, delivered fresh to the creamery within a few hours of milking, from cows grazed on rich, wildflower meadows down in the valleys, and heather moorlands further up the slopes. The cultures used to make the cheese go through a unique and complex system that combines mother cultures of different levels of maturity.

Through the twentieth century, Wensleydale gained a reputation as one of the best British cheeses, and a hallmark of what is great about British culture. In his essay ‘In Defence of English Cooking’, Orwell wrote, ‘I fancy Stilton is the best cheese of its type in the world, with Wensleydale not far behind’, while TS Eliot proclaimed Wensleydale ‘the Mozart of cheese’. 

Wensleydale is therefore comparable to Roquefort in many ways. They taste quite different: Roquefort is rich and salty and creamy and probably not to everyone’s tastes, while Wensleydale is straightforward and friendly and perhaps a little plain for cheese aficionados. But both are famous cheeses acknowledged as some of the best in their style. Apart from flavour, they differ in one more important aspect: while Roquefort was the first ever cheese to be given a protected designation of origin, Wensleydale was never given any kind of protection or formal acknowledgement at all until it was almost too late. 

During and after the Second World War, with milk production commandeered by the government, the Wensleydale creamery in Hawes began to struggle. In 1966, it was sold to the Milk Marketing Board, which in 1980 separated off its milk processing division to become Dairy Crest, which in turn floated on the Stock Exchange in 1996. By the time of its flotation, Dairy Crest was a business with a broad portfolio of dairy-based products, with little place for historical tradition and local terroirin its brand marketing save for imagery and loose claims that focus-grouped well. In May 1992, the corporation closed down the Wensleydale Creamery with the loss of 59 jobs, and announced their intention to transfer production of Wensleydale cheese out of Yorkshire and into a factory in Lancashire. They were both just cheese factories after all, so why would that matter? And it’s not as if there was any kind of historical rivalry between the two counties that meant the move might upset people. 

As it turned out, there was quite a lot of resistance to the move, and six months later a management buy-out succeeded in bringing Wensleydale back home, hiring eleven former members of staff to ensure the cheese was on sale again by Christmas. But sales refused to pick up, and Wensleydale continued to struggle.

Film-maker Nick Park had no idea of any of this when he made his animated films A Grand Day Out (1989), The Wrong Trousers(1993) and A Close Shave(1995), featuring cheese-loving Wallace and his resourceful dog Gromit. In the third film, Wallace falls in love with Wendolene Ramsbottom, a shopkeeper. But at the end of the film, with evil robot dogs vanquished and sheep saved, Wendolene reveals that she doesn’t like cheese. “Not even Wensleydale?” cries Wallace. No, it brings her out in a rash. The relationship is doomed, and Wendolene leaves. 

Park only chose the word ‘Wensleydale’ because he thought it would be funny to animate Wallace’s mouth saying it, as he put it, ‘nice and toothy’. But this whim had a dramatic effect. Demand began to pick up, and the creamery asked for and was given permission to launch a tie-in cheese using the characters’ names and likenesses. Sales soared. Wensleydale opened a new creamery in 2015, modernised but still using traditional techniques and local milk, and it now employs over 200 people. Oh, and ‘Yorkshire Wensleydale’ successfully acquired a European Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) in 2013. It requires the regional qualifier that ‘Aveyron Roquefort’ does not, because our historic disinterest in denominations of origin means that Wensleydale – like cheddar – has become too generic to enforce. This PGI is not quite as stringent as the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) that Roquefort has held since 1925, but it’s a start. 

Like the difference between Champagne and Bass Ale, the differing fortunes of these two wonderful cheeses illustrates a wider gulf in how the British and French care for and view their food and drink. (I find it telling that, as I write this, whenever I type ‘Roquefort’, my ‘UK English’ spellcheck function is fine with it, but flags up a red, wavy line under every ‘Wensleydale’.)  The European system of geographic protection for foods came into operation in 1993. This means that within the area in which the scheme operates (and in countries with mutual agreements) regionally produced food and drink is protected from competitors passing themselves off as the same thing. At the time of writing in 2018, Britain has a total of 65 products with protected status. France has 217, Italy 267, and Portugal 125. Breaking that down, Britain has 16 protected cheeses, the French 52, the Italians 47. To be fair, this is a slight improvement from 2010, when France had more cheeses enjoying protected status than Britain had for all its products together. 

But now, that might not count for anything. The rules that protect Britain’s iconic foods are part of the European Union’s regulatory framework. When Britain leaves the EU, Wensleydale, Melton Mowbray Pork Pies, Stornoway Black Pudding, Cumberland black sausage and Cornish pasties will all lose the European-wide protection that means no one else can falsely claim theirs to be the real thing. 

Pie Fidelity is published by Particular Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House.
ISBN: 9781846149597
Length: 352 Pages
RRP: £16.99


| Books, Pie Fidelity, Pies

Where were you while we were getting pie?

In case you hadn’t noticed, this week is British Pie Week. It’s also just four weeks until my next book, Pie Fidelity, is published. Pie Fidelity is about a lot more than just pies: it’s a celebration of all that’s great about traditional British food. But to celebrate British Pie Week, here’s another off-cut from the main book that tells the story of when I witnessed the closing together of two great Yorkshire legends: Tetley Dave, and Percy Turner’s pork pies.

Pic: wikipedia commons

I’m back in Barnsley, to help celebrate the fifth birthday of Acorn Brewery, which has resurrected the legendary Barnsley Bitter decades after the brewery that created it has been closed down. A few friends, customers and media folk have been invited to the brewery to sample the beers and have a chat. As a beer writer who grew up in Barnsley, I’ve been an enthusiastic supporter of Acorn since I first met founder Dave Hughes a few years previously, and he’s asked me up here to do a talk to the throng. 

One of the customers is publican and local legend ‘Tetley’ Dave Parker. Tetley Dave runs the Shoulder of Mutton in Castleford and is what’s known in the trade as a ‘character’. He reminds me of the late Jim Bowen, presenters of Bullseye, only Dave is funnier and more confident. As soon as he enters the room, he seems to be in the middle of every single one of the various conversations going on around it. He has a quip or gag to answer every point anyone makes. He’s in the audience today, in the middle of the third row of chairs, and yet somehow he’s centre-stage throughout the entire thing. He’s not scheduled to give a speech, but Tetley Dave doesn’t do schedules.

When I take the stage to share some thoughts about cask ale and tradition and Barnsley’s place within it, it quickly becomes clear that this is going to be a dialogue rather than a speech. Tetley Dave sits with his arms folded, sometimes agreeing, sometimes disagreeing, sometimes with nothing much to add, but he adds it anyway. I’ve dealt with hecklers before, and I’ve dealt with aggressive people who want to interrupt and take control. This is different. Tetley Dave is not being difficult; he’s just being Tetley Dave. He simply doesn’t recognise the conventions of public speaking, the implied contract between speaker and audience. There’s no such covenant when he’s behind the bar in the Shoulder of Mutton, when everyone just piles in and the sharpest tongue wins. I think he genuinely doesn’t realise that there are situations that behave differently from the pub. Why should they?  

After the formalities, the brewery unveils lunch, the kind of beige buffet the beer world seems to subsist on, and is at least as much to blame for my middle-aged weight gain as the beer itself. There are plates full of small pork pies, two or three bites worth, still warm from being freshly baked this morning, the jelly still just about liquid, the meat around body temperature, slightly gamey, pink and glistening rather than the dead grey of the cellophane-wrapped supermarket pie. They’re insanely good. I ask Dave Hughes where they’re from.

“Percy Turner’s in Jump,” he says. ‘Had to queue for ‘em for half an hour this morning.”

It turns out that Dave Hughes’s experience is not uncommon. There are queues outside Percy Turner’s shop in the village of Jump, just outside Barnsley, most mornings. The queues of several hundred people on Christmas Eve have become a bit of a celebrated meme on the unofficial Percy Turner’s Pork Pie Appreciation page on Facebook, unaffiliated with the butcher’s itself, with over 4,000 likes. Other shops in town have A-boards outside giving an estimated time when their consignment of Turner’s pies will arrive. There’s a spoof M&S ad one admiring fan made for YouTube, but I’ve failed to find any official recognition for the best pork pies in the world. Percy Turner is too busy making pies to bother with a website, entering competitions, or indulging in any kind of promotional activity. But then, he hardly needs to.

Something’s not quite right in the room. The atmosphere is oddly muted. The silence extends from seconds into minutes. And then I realise: Tetley Dave has stopped talking. 

I go back to the buffet for a second pork pie, and am alarmed to see that despite a ratio of pies to people that was at least 4:1 ten minutes ago, they’ve almost disappeared, so I nab a third. Still the room is quiet. No one speaks at all. After ten minutes of this bustling brewery doing as pretty good impression of a Trappist monastery, the final evidence of Percy Turner’s pork pies ever having been here is been eradicated from the room.

Ten seconds later, Tetley Dave’s voice rises from the centre of the throng: “Nice bit o’ growler is that.”

Pie Fidelity is published on 4th April by Particular Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

| Beer, Brewing, Budweiser Budvar, Cantillon, Lager, Miracle Brew, Water, Yeast

Three Examples of Why Some Good Beers Cost More

One of the biggest frustrations for brewers is when people who self-identify as lovers of good beer insist that it should always, without exception, be inexpensive. Is it fair to condemn this inverse snobbery? Or could the industry and beer communicators be doing a better job of explaining and justifying the high price tags attached to some beers?

The ‘special’ shelf in my cellar.

Notwithstanding the steady descent of Twitter generally into a platform for people to get furious over trivia and hurl abuse at people they don’t know, there’s been a spat going on over the last few days between a couple of contrarians and a bunch of beer people over the ‘outrageous’ price of a beer someone mentioned.

I immediately intervened on the side of the industry people defending and justifying the expense of some beers, tweeting:

“I find it amazing every time someone who claims to love beer asserts that beer can never be worth more than what you pay for the average pint. I’ve never heard a wine lover declare that Chateau Lafite, for example, should cost the same as Blossom Hill.”

I steadfastly believe in the validity of this comparison. But looking at the sheer ignorance of the people we were debating with, two things occurred to me. One, yes, it’s probably not worth bothering engaging with people who for some reason have chosen to spend their precious time on this planet arguing with people they don’t know about subjects on which they are entirely ignorant. But two, the frequency with which this particular attitude surfaces suggests that perhaps we’re at fault too. It’s not just on social media: in pubs and bars, when there’s some strong, rare beer being sold in thirds or halves only, there’s always someone who works out the cost of a pint (even though you can’t buy a pint) and decries how outrageous it is. Sometimes it even makes national news. And yet, we never see stories about what a rip-off it is that a pub wine list has a house white at 13.5% ABV for £14 and another wine at £65 that’s also £13.5% ABV. Even those (perhaps especially those) who are ignorant about wine are quite happy to accept that some wines are intrinsically worth more than others. If asked to explain why, they might invent an answer, but they would probably be more likely to come up with an explanation that sounds plausible to their ears rather than crying foul on pricing.

That such people are unable to do the same for beer surely says more about them than it does beer, but we can’t let them shoulder all the blame. Some of the replies to these people have been impatient, perhaps even condescending, and I thought: why would we assume people would have this knowledge when, unless they’re avid readers around beer or visitors of breweries, no one has told them?

So, in a blog post that won’t make a blind bit of difference to the professional contrarians whose only motivation is winding people up on Twitter to afford the illusion that their sad little lives mean something, here are three examples, offered with the best intentions, to explain why some beers cost more than others. These are not the only three – but they’re the three that came to my mind first.

1. Some beers have more stuff in them than other beers.

Here’s an interesting stat: in North America, craft brewers account for around ten per cent of total beer volume brewed. But craft brewers buy 25 per cent of all the hops grown in America. That means on average, craft brewers put two and a half times as many hops into their beers as mainstream commercial breweries. That means the cost of the hops going into each pint is at least two and a half times higher. (Possibly more when economies of scale and sizes of contracts are taken into account.) If you don’t like hoppy beer, or don’t want to pay a premium for it, that’s your choice. But surely the financial logic is undeniable. And that’s before you take into account the extra expense of ensuring a very hoppy beer remains chilled from the point of packaging to the point it’s bought by the drinker, to preserve the freshness of the hops.

2. Some beers take longer to make than other beers

There are various examples of this, but let’s look at lager. The word ‘lager’ means ‘to store’, and it’s generally accepted that a good quality lager should be lagered, or conditioned, at low temperatures for at least four weeks. This is because the yeast throws out various flavour compounds as it’s fermenting and conditioning. But left long enough, the yeast will then reabsorb these compounds, leaving a fresh, clean beer that’s crisp and refreshing but still has flavour and character. Not only does the lagering process tie up your capital for weeks because you can’t sell the beer you’ve just bought all the ingredients for and paid someone to make, it needs to be stored at cool temperatures – around two degrees Celsius. Keeping huge rooms full of tanks at that temperature consistently costs a serous amount of money. Budweiser Budvar lagers its beers in this way for at least ninety days. Some mainstream commercial brands go from brewing to packaging in 72 hours. If asked, they’ll tell you that modern technology has removed the need for lagering time. But taste a properly lagered lager alongside one that’s been made in a few days, and you might be sceptical about this.

3. Some beers use rare or special ingredients or processes

Lambic and geueze beers were at the centre of the recent Twitter spat. There are many, means reasons why these beers are expensive compared to a mainstream lager, but I want to focus on just one.

Instead of adding laboratory-cultured yeasts to start the fermentation of sugar into alcohol, lambic brewers rely on the natural yeasts in the air around them. It’s not quite the same thing as sourdough versus regular bread, but it’s close enough for comparison. The air around us is filled with a swirling cocktail of microflora, and its composition changes depending on where you are. There are certain parts of Belgium where this airborne biome produces great results in beer: other parts, not so much. So beers in this style are tied to particular places. But the cocktail doesn’t just change depending on where you go; it changes depending on the time of year, too. In warmer months, the party gets a little crowded, and as well as the ‘good’ yeasts you want in your beer, there are lots of uglier critters floating around that will spoil the beer and made it undrinkable. This means lambic producers can only brew during certain months of the year. The traditional season runs from October to April, when the average temperature is between -8 degrees Celsius and +8 degrees Celsius. But global warming means this window is now narrowing: the unseasonal warm weather we’re having now is catastrophic for lambic brewers. At Cantillon, the world’s most famous lambic brewery, the limited brewing window has contracted from 165 days in the early 1900s to about 140 days today. Within that period, sudden spikes mean a beer has to get poured away. This is a small, family business – the beer you brew over 140 days – once it’s been stored for three years, matured and blended – has to support people’s livelihoods for the whole year round. Prices have to rise, or the company will go out of business.

I’m not denying that there are opportunistic brewers and retailers who are cashing in on the craft beer boom to sell beers at artificially inflated prices because there are people who are willing to pay them. But I offer these three stories as examples that not all beers are the same. Brewing is an extraordinarily complex process and the ingredients of beer are each complex in their own way.

As with anything you buy in the supermarket, there are cheap versions and expensive versions – if all you can afford is an Iceland spag bol at £1 for an individual portion, it would be wrong to judge. But surely you’d appreciate that a scratch-cooked version using better quality tomatoes and beef is going to taste better? Brewers face similar decisions to you. If you’re not interested or not able to afford the better quality stuff, fine. But it’s simply inverse snobbery to criticise those who would rather splash out.

If anyone is interested in learning more about beer’s complex and wonderful supply chain, and the incredible lengths growers, breeders and scientists go to help brewers produce great beer, try Miracle Brew:

You’ll never see beer in the same way again. I know I didn’t.

| Bacon, Books, Food, Pie Fidelity

Book out-take: what bacon rolls tell us about the decline of civilization

It’s seven weeks until the launch of my new book. Pie Fidelity sees me branching out from beer and cider writing into food and drink more broadly, so I’ll be blogging more about food as I promote the book, and probably after that too. Here are 1500 words that got cut from my chapter on breakfast, not because they were no good, but because I had way too many breakfasts in the book and my primary readers were starting to feel stuffed and greasy just reading it.

I don’t think it’s too hysterical an observation to make that civilisation has peaked, and has now entered a sustained period of decline. I don’t base this on the blanket coverage of war, famine, refugees and insane megalomaniacs in positions of power – these have always been with us. I’m talking about peaks of civilisation and progress that we have attained in the past, and now no longer have. We used to have regular manned flights to the moon and ambitions of going further beyond into space. We used to have supersonic passenger aircraft. We no longer do. To this list, I’m preparing to add the mighty bacon sandwich. 

Time pressures and health concerns mean that, for most of us, the full English breakfast or its equivalent is no more than a weekend treat. But it sends forth its ambassador, the bacon buttie, to do battle in the week, a signifier, a reminder, of what breakfast is really all about. In many of the surveys I’ve seen, the bacon buttie rivals the full breakfast itself as an icon of British life. Like fish and chips, curry or the question “fancy a pint?” It’s impossible to hear the suggestion of it without it raising a smile. But for no good reason, we seem to be in reverse gear on our journey to bacon nirvana.

You can spot civilisation’s decline in public buildings too. The Victorian train station, for example, was a grand edifice that inspired you with the possibilities of travel and made you feel as though you were embarking on a great and noble adventure, even if you were only going to Swindon to see your aunt. These and other municipal buildings erected around the same time were nicer than they had to be. They were designed to prompt an emotional response, to have aesthetic value rather than being strictly utilitarian.

New or rebuilt railway stations could not be more different. Their functionality is brutal to the point of outright hostility. The ‘seats’ on the platforms of stations such as Derby could only have been designed by someone with a pathological hatred of other people: shiny, slippery benches four inches deep, sloping forward at a 45-degree angle, mocking you for even daring to think they could offer any kind of comfort. It’s more restful to stand.

This contrast is echoed by the refreshments offered in each kind of station. Until recently, inside old Victorian stations such as London’s King’s Cross, homely little cafés would lurk. These independent businesses were run by shiny-faced men and women in their fifties, blasting steaming tea from huge urns into chunky white mugs. This tea was tannic and dark, as a friend of mine once remarked, ‘the colour of He-Man’s skin’. They served bacon rolls made with thick juicy rashers. And a roll and a cup of tea would cost £2.50. 

In all but a handful of British train stations, these cafés have been replaced by the same chains you find in the new stations. These franchises, with names like Pumpkin and Lemon Tree, come across as low-rent versions of Costa and Starbuck’s. Along with Upper Crust, Caffè Ritazza and every other stand on a typical British train station concourse, are all owned or operated by one company, SSP. Whichever franchise they’re working in, the staff are trained to ‘upsell’ you, and seemingly trained to do little else. The bacon is always overdone and the bread is the wrong kind – baguette, ciabatta and focaccia have their time and place, but by the gods it’s not here, not now. The staff often seem confused when you ask them to heat the roll or baguette, despite the fact that the little card on the stand says ‘served hot!’ If they deign to ask you if you want sauce, you’re lucky if they remember which one – often they give you tomato and brown because that’s easier than trying to remember the answer to a question they asked you ten seconds ago. And instead of costing £2.50, like the bacon roll and cuppa in the café that stood here before the station’s last refurbishment, your baguette and flimsy cardboard cup of wan tea costs at least double that. 

The first time I was presented with this perplexing excuse for a bacon roll and a cup to tea, I simply couldn’t understand how any big corporation could get something so simple so colossally wrong. And then I realised that part of the problem is that in every chain like this, everything is prepared off-site, packaged in cellophane and delivered to each branded outlet, foolproof and ready to eat or microwave. Head office has decided the branch staff can’t be trusted with the simple act of cooking, that they’re incapable of performing tasks at work that they, you and I carry out perfectly well in our leisure time. This is what now passes for ‘progress’, as our civilisation starts to pick up speed on its downward curve.

In any of these franchises, or on the trains themselves, or even in the supposedly more upmarket coffee shop chains these places emulate, a closer inspection of the contents of whatever they pass off as a bacon sandwich provides further confirmation of the inevitable demise of our way of life. I can’t have my bacon sandwich, baguette, ciabatta or whatever-else-they’ve-decided-to-serve-it-on-except-a-simple-fucking-roll without sauce, so this means I have no choice but to open the thing. This is not to be recommended. Inside, you find a few gossamer-thin strips of streaky bacon the colour of old blood, covering a quarter to a third of the surface area of the bread. In my time, I’ve bought some pretty cheap and nasty bacon from some fairly down-at-heel supermarkets, and it’s never been as nasty as this stuff, so I’ve no idea where they get it from.

State of this.

Even in the rare chains where it’s better quality than the scrapings from the abattoir floor, it’s still streaky. There’s a great deal I admire about American culture and cuisine, but bacon seems to be some kind of national blind spot. They seem unaware that back bacon exists, because if they did know about it they wouldn’t insist on serving streaky bacon on their breakfasts and burgers. And as the popularity of American cuisine surges in the UK, chains are replacing back bacon with streaky, to be more like the Americans, even though they know it’s not as good.

We’re going backwards.

This is just one example of Britain’s food identity crisis, the sense that anything British must somehow be inferior to something foreign, even when this is evidently not true. At the time of writing, Pret à Manger’s ‘bacon roll’ is in fact a ‘bacon brioche’, served ‘with a dab of unmistakably French butter’. The French don’t do bacon rolls. The English do. So why would anyone think a French-style bacon roll would be an improvement on the English original?

As well as offering a warped version of the bacon sandwich or roll, these chains also offer something they usually call an ‘all-day breakfast’ roll, sandwich, bloomer or even wrap. These generally contain streaky bacon, a sausage sliced into tiny wafers, some kind of omelette and a ‘tomato relish’ because you could use ketchup or brown sauce like a normal person but where would the fun be in that? These products are a plangent reminder that the modern ‘on the go’ lifestyle – a phrase beloved of food marketers but no one else – means we don’t have time for a real breakfast any more. The whole concept depresses me so much I’ve never been able to bring myself to try one.

Until I went to Belfast. 

St George’s Market is a beautiful Victorian indoor market that has won many awards. While it’s unashamedly foodie, it celebrates the traditional and affordable as well as the more exclusively gastronomic. I’m advised to get there early to try the Belfast Bap.

The saying around here is that the word ‘bap’ is an acronym for ‘bread at affordable prices’. This isn’t true in terms of etymology, but it is true in Belfast: the Belfast bap was created by an Armagh baker called Barney Hughes to help feed Belfast’s poor in the 1845-49 famine, and stuck around as a favourite food for the workers in the docks nearby. 

Appropriately, given the history of shipbuilding in those docks, the roll itself is of titanic proportions. It’s roughly the size and shape of the millennium dome, deep brown, almost burnt on top. Served as a breakfast bap, it comfortably accommodates two thick rashers of back bacon, two sausages sliced once lengthways, and a fried egg, all sitting on a thick stratum of mushrooms and fried onions. I order it with a cup of tea, and haul my breakfast to a small table in front of the baked goods stall that assembled it. The roll is the same height as the top of the Styrofoam cup. 

The first word that strikes me as I tuck in is ‘comforting’. Everything is well done without quite being burnt. There’s caramelisation and depth, richness, and an instinctive threat of danger. Rolls like this give the cooked breakfast its cancerous reputation: it has nothing to do with the scare stories stoked by the Daily Mail: you look at this, and taste it, and your gut says, ‘Oh wow, this obviously carcinogenic. How could it not be?’

Cup of tea included for scale.

The roll is so big it probably inspired the building of the Titanic in the first place. And like the ship, it sinks. It takes time to work through this thing, and after the first ten minutes, while the dome that forms the top half remains unbowed, the base just can’t cope and simply dissolves in the watery grease that’s now pooling on my paper plate. It’s now no longer possible to gnaw away at this edifice unassisted. 

On the counter, there’s a cup full of disposable knives and forks. 

I have a word with myself. The dissolving base is a failsafe mechanism. You could quite reasonably walk away at this point. No one would blame you. You’ve done as much here as any reasonable person could. Whereas if you pick up a knife and fork and carry on, you’re making a statement, a declaration of reckless bravado.

OK, just another couple of bites…

Twenty minutes after I bought it, stuffed after eating about two-thirds of the thing, I finally admit defeat. The mess that’s left on my plate is so substantial it could easily be used to make a new all-day breakfast muffin or wrap of the same size and consistency as those found in high street coffee shop chains. As far as I know, this could be how those chains do source their produce. It doesn’t matter to me: I never need eat breakfast again.

Pie Fidelity is published by Particular Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, on 4th April 2019, and is available for pre-order. Disclosure: my trip to Belfast was partially funded and made possible by Tourism NI. Thanks to the wonderful Claire Keenan for introducing me to the amazing worth of Northern Ireland’s food and drink.

| Books, Food, Pie Fidelity

PIE FIDELITY: In Defence of British Food

“We’d like you to do another book,” they said,

“We just don’t want it to be about beer or cider,” they said.

“What else ya got?”

“Food is everything we are. It’s an extension of nationalist feeling, ethnic feeling, your personal history, your province, your region, your tribe, your grandma. It’s inseparable from those from the get-go.” 

Anthony Bourdain (1956 – 2018)


I was devastated when Bourdain died.

He caught a lot of flak from beer geeks for criticising craft beer, but when he spoke about lots of people earnestly sipping tiny samples of their “Mumford & Sons IPAs”, I had to hold my hands up in surrender. Even when he was being unreasonable, he was usually right. His writing style was, along with George Orwell and Stephen King, a significant influence on the development of my own.

I was just starting the second draft of this book when news of Bourdain’s passing broke. I hadn’t been thinking about him as a direct influence while I was writing the first draft – which is weird given that this will be my first book overtly about food. But then, after his death, I was reading lots of stuff about him, and lots of his best lines, and I found the quote above and realised he’d perfectly described the book I’d just finished, even though he will never know about it.

I’m using this quote in the front of the book because it’s pretty much an introduction to the entire idea in three punchy, beautifully syncopated, passionate, enlivening, third-eye-opening sentences. I can only hope there are three sentences in the book that read as well – otherwise, it’s all downhill once we get into the text proper.

I always wanted to write more broadly than beer. Not because beer is limiting – it’s not, in terms, of what you can write about, even if it is in terms of the breadth of people you can reach – but it’s not the only subject in the world that I’m interested in exploring via the process by which I write books.

Most people I know who are passionate about beer – or cider- are also passionate about food. The best ones, the ones whose opinions I respect the most about what they drink, are also experts on what’s good to eat – not just what it tastes like and how we might get our hands on the best, but also how food fits in with everything else. 

After The Apple Orchard proved to be pleasantly successful, Penguin, who published that book, asked me what else I might want to write about. (There was a glut of beer books at the time.) I realised that when I’m not thinking about beer or cider, for a good chunk of the time I’m thinking about food – not just eating it (though a lot of it is that, as my physique suggests) – but also about how to cook it, the act of sharing it, what it means, how it impacts us and defines us. Yes I’m post-rationalising here, but what I mean is, I realised that in the same way it had long puzzled me that British beer drinkers tend to be dismissive of cask ale even as craft beer drinkers around the rest of the world revere it at least as much as any other beer style, we also tend to be down on our food in a similar way.

Except that if you actually engage us in talking about food, we’re not: fish and chips, Sunday roasts and bacon sandwiches are three of the most dominant icons that define Britain. Our food and drink is indelibly linked with how others see us, and our own sense of who we are.

And people love talking about them: their memories of both the best and the worst, the comfort they bring, the way they brought families and friends together when we were much younger. More recently, we’ve made other dishes such as curry and spag Bol as British as the rest – but go back far enough, and all our favourite meals have multicultural origins. 

So this is a book about nine meals that define us. It’s about appreciating these meals in their perfect context and situation, about the typical example rather than the best, about how they are important to us, and what it means that they are.

This is also my most personal book to date: I had no idea when I started writing, but if you want to explore the meaning of food, you can’t do so honestly without delving in to what food means in your own life. About a quarter of the word count in this book turned out to be memoir. If you’re looking for dispassionate food history, stop reading now. If you’re honest with yourself, your relationship with food is a gateway to your own memories and emotions too, whether they are happy or sad. (Mine tend to be snatched moments of joy in a relatively unhappy childhood.)

It’s all in there. Its all done. It’s now available for pre-order on Amazon, and having finished it I’m going on holiday to Spain at the end of the week. 

If you’re looking for something patriotic, something that can make you proud to be British in these uncertain times, this is the book for you. If you’re expecting that to come with some kind of “And the thing is, because we’re good at something, that means every other nation on earth is shit compared to us, let’s kick all the fuckers out” then I’m sorry. but maybe it’s not for you. #notsorry. 

From the blurb:

Yes, it’s good. It’s great.

But we’re British, and we don’t have to bang on about it all the time.

In Britain, we have always had an awkward relationship with food. We’ve been told for so long that we are terrible cooks and yet according to a 2012 YouGov survey, our traditional food and drink are more important than the monarchy and at least as significant as our landscape and national monuments in defining a collective notion of who we are. Taking nine archetypically British dishes – Pie and Peas, A Cheese Sandwich, Fish and Chips, Spag Bol, Devonshire Cream Tea, Curry, The Full English, The Sunday Roast and a Crumble with Custard – and examining them in their perfect context, Pete Brown reveals just how fundamental food is to our sense of identity, perhaps even our sense of pride, and the ways in which we understand our place in the world.

#Gerritdahnyer

| Miracle Brew

Miracle Brew Is Now Out In Paperback!

Great news for people with weak wrists and anyone struggling to find that perfect Father’s Day present!

 

My first book specifically about beer since 2009’s Hops & Glory, Miracle Brew traces its roots back to a hop festival in the Czech Republic in 2007 and a hop garden in Kent in 2012. Other fragments – a trip to the hop fields of Slovenia, a conversation about water in the southern Czech Republic, a beer festival in Norwich – all coalesced, and the idea for a book on the ingredients of beer emerged.

I know that can sound kinda boring. It’s not. This is look at the history, the magic, the world of beer through the lens of what it’s made from. And it turned out to be quite timely: a survey last year, once the hardback had already been published, revealed that only 22% of British people can correctly identify the four main ingredients of our most popular drink. That’s just mad. Especially given that there are stories behind each one that would be frankly unbelievable if they weren’t absolutely true.

Quite unexpectedly, the book ended up taking me all around the world, from the Yakima Valley in Washington State to Bamberg in Germany, from Tasmania to Copenhagen. If you enjoyed the travel antics of Three Sheets to the Wind, there’s more of that here, as well as the Hops & Glory-style historyand the social analysis of Man Walks into a Pub.

If you like beer, you really, really want to read this book. But don’t just take my word for it…

 

“[Brown] leavens his magisterial tour of fearsome science and vast brewery history with cheery anecdotes, humor, vivid you-are-there prose and a clever eye for personality . . . His rhapsodies about the meaning of life and the meaning of beer are stirring. . . .His expertise and insight will leave you with a glimmer of infinity every time you hold a bottle of it in your hand.”
The New York Times

 

“Pete is, no question, the most stylishly dextrous and verbally entertaining writer about beer in the English language right now, and because of that, Miracle Brew is a great read even, probably, if you’re barely interested in beer at all. Buy it for a pal you know likes beer: buy another one for yourself, you’ll enjoy it.”
Martyn Cornell, Zythophile

 

“I hesitate to use the word staggering where a book about beer is concerned but Pete Brown’s new work has bowled me over… Pete’s skill as a writer and raconteur turns what might have been a dry as dust tome into a page turner… screamingly funny … a magisterial book that will remain a key contributor to our knowledge of and pleasure in beer and brewing for years to come.”
Roger Protz

| Books, Food

I just finished writing my next book

Provisionally titled Tastes of Britain: How Eight Meals Shaped a Nation, my fourth book launch in two-and-a-bit years should be my last for a while… 

Never mind the quality, feel the width.

 

High quality problems don’t come much higher than an editor at Penguin saying, ‘We loved your last book [for us]and we’d like another one, but we’d like it from you sort of now-ish’ when you’re already knackered from writing three books in eighteen months for three different publishers. Of course I said yes, immediately.

One of the benefits of Dry January (there are pros and cons) is that I get a bit of an energy spike because I sleep better, and also I’m not going out as much. So last January I rattled out an idea, which Penguin liked, and this January, after researching it for nine months and then sitting down to write it at the start of November, I finished the book. That’s the quickest I’ve ever turned a book around – it usually takes two years from start to finish.

A book about the meals that shaped Britain may seem like a bit of a departure for me. It is, really: there are cameos from beer, cider and pubs but only in passing. But some of the themes in this book have been kicking around in my head since at least 2009, and they come from exactly the same place as my first two beer books: what makes us tick? How did we get to be the people we are? And why do we seem so curiously reticent about shouting about the things we’re really good at?

To explore these issues and more, I trawled through survey after survey that asks us what our favourite meals are. I chose the meals that kept coming up in every one, and compiled my own list of eight. This list definitely misses off some national favourites and classics, but just like when I was visiting beer drinking countries for Three Sheets to the Wind, you have to have a cut-off point in numbers much lower than you would ideally like if you want to do justice to the ones you’ve chosen. So there are eight (it crept up from a magnificent seven) in total.

For each meal, I choose the perfect location to eat the typical, most representative example of it (not the best – at least, not necessarily) and go there and eat it. While doing so, I explore its history; I look at the emerging discipline of food studies to see what it tells us about ourselves; I explore why in most cases the meal seems to be under threat even as we say it’s one of our favourites; and explore personally what the meal means to me, growing up as a distinctly working-class northern lad and now being a fully paid up member of the middle-class north London Metropolitan foodie elite, or so I’m sometimes told on Twitter. Lots of things shape our attitudes and relationships with food – class is a pretty big one.

I won’t say any more just now because we still have the editing process to go through. It’s due out in September, and I’ll release more details before then. And I’m sure many passages will be cut, some of which I might be able to use for previews here or elsewhere.

Apart from that, I’m taking a break from writing and working on ideas for books for a short while, for the first time since 2014. This means I should finally have time for more blogging again, as well as having a social life… see you around.

| Beer Books, Beer Writing, British Guild of Beer Writers, Events, Miracle Brew, Pubs, Radio, Writing

So Farewell Then, 2017

I don’t really do Golden Pints. But here are some reflections on the year that just sped past without anyone noticing while we were all gazing at our smartphones. First there’s a personal look back at what 2017 meant to me, followed by a transcript of a speech I gave at the annual Beer Writers’ Dinner on 29th November, which touches on some broader themes. It’s a bit long overall, so you might just want to read one part or the other, but if you’ve got this far, you’re probably feeling bored and it should fill a few minutes before you hit the pub again. 

My weight-limit-busting haul from the Hill Farmstead brewery, Vermont, October.

The personal bit

I feel increasingly guilty that, as the rest of the world goes to shit, with all the best people dying, and hatred, intolerance and wilful ignorance given free rein, I’m doing OK, thanks! 2016 was the worst year I could remember in world terms but was great for me professionally, and 2017 has been a similar follow-up. My year has been dominated by books: the paperback release of 2016’s The Apple Orchard,  the hardback release of Miracle Brew (my first straightforward beer book since 2009), extensive touring in the UK and North America to support that book, and the research and writing of my follow-up to The Apple Orchard, my ninth, as-yet-untitled book, now overdue, and the project that will be claiming every waking minute of January 2018. The Apple Orchard was shortlisted for many awards but didn’t quite win any, whereas The Pub: A Cultural Institution, also released in 2016, was named Fortnum & Mason Drinks Book of the Year. Reader, we partied.

(Along with some of the other winners from last year I’m judging these awards this year. Find out more and enter your work here.)

I also joined the editorial line-up of of Original Gravity magazine and had great fun helping shape the direction of the UK’s only independent beer magazine. Exciting times ahead on that. We ran the Beer and Cider Marketing Awards for the third time (first time with cider included), for which I chaired the judging, as I did for this year’s Guild of Beer Writers Awards after being named Beer Writer of the Year in 2016. I was delighted that Adrian Tierney-Jones won. (I was also delighted that, with Adrian being a friend, I didn’t express my preference until every other member of the judging panel had had their say, and they all said ‘Adrian’.)

Between all that I managed to fit in quite a few trips to breweries. A few days in Belgium in March included tours and chats with Rodenbach and new Flemish brewery Verzet.

The massive barrel-ageing hall at Rodenbach, producing the sharp, tangy beer Michael Jackson once called ‘the most refreshing beer in the world’.

… and the more modest barrel ageing room at Verdett, where each barrel is named after one of the brewers’ favourite rock stars.

In June a group of us did a whirlwind tour around Bristol, organised by people who were keen to convince us that the city was one of the most exciting beer destinations in. the UK. They succeeded in their task.

The illustrations on Bristol brewer Lost & Grounded’s beers all fit together into one big picture and magical set of characters. It’s clever, warm, funny, and strangely moving. Oh, and the beer inside is pretty amazing too.

In July I was invited back to speak at Beer Boot Camp in Johannesburg and Cape Town. The brewing scene there is developing at a ferocious rate. It’s madly exciting. And within seconds of arriving at their beautiful brewery, the Aegir Project became one of my favourite breweries in the world.

Wonderful, imaginative beers brewed and drunk in a location you’ll never want to leave.

October saw my North American tour, during which I got to visit Hill Farmstead, one of the most interesting and talked about breweries in the world. I found a balance in my views on New England IPA, possibly the most divisive topic I’ve seen in my time as a beer writer. (Apart from cask breathers. And the definition of craft beer. And brewery buy-outs. And a whole bunch of other stuff.)

Hill Farmstead – the most talked about brewery in the world? When we were there, people were queuing up for growler refills two hours before the doors were due too open. And it’s a two-hour drive from pretty much anywhere else.

The breweries that have impressed me most this year are Wiper & True, especially for their English saison; Lost & Grounded for their creativity, rigour and flawless Belgian Tripel; Verzet, for their overall vision and their Flemish brown; and Siren, for consistently combining experimentation with class to create beers I’m excited to drink. There have been many more doing great stuff too, but that’s my top four.

I’ve done scores of events and met loads of brilliant people. The highlight has to be presenting my Beer and Music Matching show to over a thousand people at the Green Man Festival in August. I still regularly do events where only three people turn up. That keeps you humble. But this one was at the other end of a very wide scale.

Thank You, Green Man.

Pub-wise, I was lucky enough to have Gracelands – a small pub company that runs some of the best beer pubs in London, including there King’s Arms in Bethnal Green – open a new site, The Axe, just five minutes walk from my house. The effect on my bank balance and liver has been alarming, but not only do they get hold of really good beers, they also curate them really well – the right balance is always on at the right time – and while they’re expensive, they don’t overcharge. If you’re ever in Stoke Newington, it’s unmissable.

The year ended with Miracle Brew receiving the best review I’ve ever been given, by no lesser august publication than the New York Times. That’s one to keep me going whenever the self-doubt kicks in – which is often. The same day the review appeared, I was on the Christmas edition of BBC Radio 4’s Food Programme, providing festive drinks for a dinner hosted by Sheila Dillon and cooked by and eaten with guests including Giorgio Locatelli, Yotam Ottolenghi and Angela Hartnett.

Merry foodie Christmas!

I have no idea how I got to be in a position where things like this happen to me. But I do know none of it would happen if people didn’t read what I write, or didn’t like it when they did. I know I don’t please everyone with what I do, and I’m absolutely fine with that. But if you do take some enjoyment from or interest in my writing, thank you so much for your continued patronage. If a particular idea or passage of writing, a recommendation of a beer or cider or pub, or a pairing of a beer with a particular dish or tune gives you pleasure, then I’m doing something worthwhile, no matter how small.

 

The review/reflection bit

It’s been a tumultuous, dramatic, fascinating year in beer. I did a short intro speech before I presented the awards at the annual Beer Writer’s Dinner on 29th November, in which I commented on some aspects of it, with a particular focus on where beer writing is going. A few people asked if they could get a copy of the speech, so here’s an edited version. 

What a year it’s been! Another year of dramatic developments in beer with so much to write about.

People say it can’t carry on, but we’ve had yet another year of declining numbers of pubs, declining beer volume overall, coupled with a dramatic increase in the number of breweries brewing and beers available to drink.

As the pressure and competition grows, we’re seeing the sustained trend of takeovers of craft breweries by bigger corporates – sorry – I meant to say ‘partnering with like-minded business colleagues among the brewing fraternity’ apparently.

And like those proverbial Japanese soldiers lost on a desert island who don’t realise the war is over, some of us are still lost in the woods trying to find a technical definition of craft beer.

If do you want a precise technical definition, be careful what you wish for.

CAMRA of course, have a very tight and precise definition of real ale, which is precisely why they’ve spent the last two years trying to revitalise now we’re in a globalised world of excellent beer, wondering if they’re about cask ale, good quality beer more generally, saving pubs, or acting as a sales promotion agency for Wetherspoons.

In 2017, beer writing has been characterised by discussions – robust discussions – OK, arguments – fierce arguments – OK fights – about all these issues, and more.

Given that we proudly call ourselves one of the friendliest, most sociable industries in the world – and I genuinely believe we are – it’s amazing how much we can find to argue about!

Cask ale for example. Is it good enough? Is it expensive enough? Is it cheap enough?

After dipping my toe in this issue back in January, I’d like to say now on the record, categorically, that cask ale is great and there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. It has always been great, it is always great now, and it always will be great, and Paul Nunny, could you please just give me some proof that my wife and dog are safe and well, and will be released soon like you promised. Thank you.

More recently we’ve had very public spats about New England IPA, a beer style that’s created civil war among craft beer fans. On one side there are those who think this is an absolute joke of a style, an affront to brewing tradition, a product of Instagram culture and the first solid evidence that craft beer might be getting too faddy for its own good.

And on the other side, I suppose there are some people who must disagree with that for some reason.

Just this week, we’ve seen an online spat between people on one side, who think beers using sexist imagery to sell themselves should be banned for beer competitions, and people on the other side, who are dicks.

And then there’s a seemingly intensifying spat about the ethics of beer writing.

If a beer writer gets sent beer for free, can their opinion on that beer be trusted?

If a beer writer gets invited on a trip – a junket, sorry – to a brewery and is entertained, can any of their opinions be regarded as valid?

If a beer writer falls down in a bar and there’s no one there to hear it, do they make a sound? Or do they just Instagram it instead?

But these arguments, these spats, are important, at least up to the point where social media amplifies them and twists them into something nastier.

The role of the Guild is ‘to extend the public knowledge and appreciation of beer and pubs and to raise the standard of beer communication’.

Much of the time, that means celebrating beer, educating our readers about it, finding the good stuff and getting it to a wider audience.

But that doesn’t mean the guild is some provisional wing of the beer industry’s PR machine, providing gushing coverage of whatever that industry decides to do, in the terms the industry wants. We shouldn’t just be cheerleaders, breathlessly parroting the industry’s agenda.

Like any other industry or interest, beer needs to be scrutinised, analysed and occasionally held to account.

And so do we, as writers.

Beer writing has expanded so much in the last twenty years, and we as writers must now think carefully about what role we want to perform.

Not a single one of us can be an expert in every single aspect of it. You can’t be a newshound, and a flavour expert, and have an academic knowledge of the history of brewing, and be an industry analyst, and have a perspective on alcohol policy, and an in-depth knowledge of global beer styles, and be an effective campaigning voice for cask ale, all at the same time. It’s not possible.

And that’s great! There’s room for specialisation in all those things, and the totality of beer writing is so much bigger and richer as a result.

The social media revolution has made us all communicators about beer, and while I personally believe writing will always be the most important and effective part of that, the broader landscape is hugely exciting. Even if we want to write, we have to start thinking about photography. We may find out voices are more effective, or get a different side to them, on podcasts or radio, or even in person, at live events.

But there are risks in this brave new world.

Social media has the potential to make narcissists of us all. Badly-lit bottle shots and a hundred hash tags on an Instagram post do not extend the public knowledge and appreciation of beer. Self-indulgent blog posts describing in detail about how you swapped a bottle of Cantillon Geuze with someone in Vermont for a bottle of Hill Farmstead’s Society and Solitude #10 making you the only person in Britain to have a bottle don’t represent a raising of the standard of beer communication.

(And anyway, I’ve got a bottle in my fridge at home that I bought when I visited the brewery last month so screw you, you ticker.)

Whatever channel you’re communicating in, the basic rules of old-fashioned journalism still apply. As your reader or viewer, make me care. Take me somewhere. Tell me a story.

All tonight’s winners have succeeded in this mission, have told compelling stories about their subjects in fresh ways that engage readers, listeners and viewers.

Each judge on the panel is an expert of some kind, but probably not in what the entrant is writing about. They probably don’t know the entrant, and may never have read their work before, and next year their places will be taken by someone new.

So if you think it’s always the same old names being shortlisted in the same categories year after year, this is not because judging is some kind of cosy old boy’s network. It’s because those people’s work appeals fresh, every year, to a different set of judges who may not have read them before.

Conversely, if you’re someone who has entered several different categories with work you’re really proud of, and you haven’t been as successful in getting shortlisted as you hoped – this is not a referendum on your worth as a beer writer. At no point have the judges sat down together and decided to shun you this year. Your work in each category has been judged independently of every other category. Believe me, we all have years where we feel like some of our best work has been overlooked, and next year might be completely different.

You can see the full list of winners here. Go check out some of their work. 2017 was a great year for beer, and a great year for beer writing. Let’s have it again in 2018.

Cheers!

| Brooklyn Brewery, Miracle Brew, US Craft Beer

My Spin-Ale Tap Tour: A Look Back at America

Last month I did my first ever book tour of North America. I had intended to blog the tour as it progressed, but the sheer amount of time and effort it took, combined with limited access to wifi, meant I couldn’t do much at all while I was over there. So here, on the faint off-chance that it might be interesting, is the first part of my highlights of a beery ten days over the pond.

Part One: New York, 14th-17th October

When you fly into the US from Europe, beating jet leg is easy: you just have to stay up really late the first night. (It’s so much more difficult the other way round.) For this trip I’m staying in Queens. I’ve only ever stayed in Manhattan before, but in terms of affordability, that may as well now be Mars. Most of my events are in Brooklyn, so it makes sense to stay close. An AirB&B just over the border in Queens is the limit of affordability on this trip.

Queens reminds me of parts of North East London where I live: a highly ethnically diverse population (in this case Latin American) with the first signs of creeping gentrification. The first of these signs are, inevitably, the artisanal coffee shop and the craft beer bar. There are plenty of the former around my apartment (some doubling delightfully as second-hand bookshops) and there’s one of the latter just at the bottom of the road I’m staying on, amid the 24-hour delis selling six-packs and microwavable heart attacks. The coffee shops are all closed by the time I’m settled in, so it looks like it’s going to have to be the craft beer bar.

Craft Culture has only been open a few months. It follows the craft beer bar template: brightly lit, minimally modernist, with big fridges, a wide array of taps and a generosity with the wifi password I never find in more traditional bars or pubs. (Bars like this recognise that the punters’ Instagram accounts are their primary marketing channel.)

I ask what’s local, and among the suggestions is a ‘gose cider’. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to create this particular combination, so I have to give it a try.

Murky. Minimally carbonated. Massively fucked about with. And unutterably refreshing and enlivening. The perfect dislocated jet lag cure.

‘Peaks and Valleys’, from the Graft Cidery in Newburgh, New York, is one of a range of ‘Gose ciders’ that is itself part of a broader range of sour ciders. It’s another lovely example of what can happen when you start messing with stuff where you don’t have established traditions to hold you back. There’s a trend for sour beers. A lot of farmhouse and a great deal of Spanish cider has sour characteristics. What happens if you play in the space between the two?  This seasonal, ‘Not Pumpkin Cider’ has been created with the addition of birch bark, cinnamon, anise & sea salt. They say it ‘tastes like a spiced birch beer!’ I say it’s one of the most absurdly refreshing drinks I’ve ever tasted and should be given out as a mandatory tonic to any non-teetotallers immediately at the end of a seven hour flight. I have no idea what a traditional West Country cider maker would say about it, but I imagine you’d have to stand well back while they were saying it.

I move on down the road to the Ridgewood Alehouse, for my traditional New York ritual – namely, sitting at the bar late at night, trying to understand the sports on the banks of TV screens behind the bar, insisting on figuring it out for myself and resisting the friendly attempts at explanation from my fellow bar flies, and just soaking up the atmosphere.

The commercial breaks come every five minutes, and every time it’s the same ads. There’s one for Taco Bell, showing a quesadilla being made with a ton of cheese, covered with deep-fried chicken nuggets and then folded over. My arteries fur just watching it. The strapline at the end is ‘Live Mas!’ or ‘Live More’. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an advertising line that’s more at odds with the product it’s showing.

One of these has 650 calories and contains 65% of your daily recommended intake of saturated fat, 25% of your daily cholesterol and 62% of your daily salt. They are always shown in servings of four. Live More!

Most of the other people here are drinking shots now rather than beers, bourbon poured into chunky glasses that shape the liquid within into a brown bullet. The proprietor of a blog called naughtygossip.com is being interviewed about Harvey Weinstein. California is going up in flames and Donald Trump still hasn’t mentioned it. The new Lexus ad is an action movie with a constant stream of subtitles such as ‘Professional drivers, do not attempt,’ and ‘collision damage not covered by warranty.’ Another ad for college football cuts between images depicting an ancient battlefield, corpses lying with feathered arrows in their backs, and the football team striding purposefully towards the camera.  This is the land of the free, whose origin story is defined by scarcity, and now allows us to let loose our appetites like nowhere else in the world. The whole country hankers after excess. Trump waddles to a podium, and I realise the only thing he cares about is being top of the news cycle, all the time. He doesn’t care why he’s there, he just has to be. Melania stands behind him, a waxwork in big dark glasses.

I’m not drunk. I’m not tired. I’m in a grey limbo beyond both, my sober mind locked in a panic room, believing it’s still calling the shots. But I’ve made it. It’s late. I have no idea how long I’ve been awake, how long ago that first drink in the departure lounge was. I can go now, back to my studenty apartment. If I want to. I’m not sure I do. The capacity to make decisions has long gone.

The next day I kill my laptop. I spend two hours walking across Brooklyn and realise that on its own, it’s bigger than most other cities I’ve ever visited. I take the subway into Manhattan, ready to spend a day being a tourist. I have one column to write before I can relax into my schedule here, and decide to do it sitting at a bar watching the ballgame. As I finish the column, I reach for my pint of IPA, go in a little too high and tip it over, pouring it into my keyboard. Over the past decade I’ve done this twice before. I turn the computer off, flip it upside down, stuff it with paper towels, but I know it’s pointless. It’s dead. I need to work while I’m here and I need to present the slides for my talk tomorrow night. So I spend my one touristy afternoon in New York spending money I don’t have on a new laptop, going back to my apartment and downloading my life back from the cloud. And then rewriting the bastard column.

Monday, it’s time to get to work. Back over in Brooklyn I’m due at the Heritage Radio Network. Just around the corner is a ramen place, where I stop for lunch. Back in the nineties I ate in the first branch of Wagamama just after it opened, when there were queues around the block. I thought I knew what ramen was. Now, I can never eat in Wagamama again. Ichiran is a traditional ramen place opened by a family that immigrated from Japan and does Tonkotsu ramen and nothing else. You’re directed to a private booth, separated from the kitchen by a bamboo screen. You order a customisable ramen, where you can choose the softness of your noodles, the heat, the richness of the stock and additional toppings and sides, by ticking boxes on a slip of paper. You hand this over, and the bowl arrives within five minutes. The servers – whose faces you never see – then bow deeply and lower the bamboo screen, and you eat your ramen in splendid isolation.

Reasonably spicy, rich stock, extras mushrooms, special red sauce.

I will never eat ramen again until I can be assured it will be this good. It’s a terrible curse: taste it once, experience bliss, knowing it’s changed you and made things that were once OK taste like ash by comparison. If I have to sell my house in London and buy a shoebox in Brooklyn to eat this again, it would be worth it.

On to the radio station – deliciously situated in the back of a wonderfully homely pizza restaurant and bar broadcasting Halloween movies, with a courtyard featuring an extra pizza grill and a tiki bar. Heritage Radio is an entire network devoted to praising the joys of local food and drink. With its origins in the Slow Food movement, it’s as if the BBC Radio 4 Food Programme gets to take over the entire schedule.

Typical weekly schedule for Heritage Radio. Let’s start one here in London.

I record an episode of Fuhmentaboudit, a show that covers all things fermented, from cheese to tempeh, but with a focus on home brewing. You can listen to my episode here.

Fuhmentaboudit!

Then, it’s off to the Brooklyn Brewery to record an episode of the Steal This Beer podcast, with Augie Carton and John Holl. You can listen to my episode here.

And then, straight into a presentation of Miracle Brew to the Legion of Osiris. This is basically a group of beer fans masquerading as some kind of freemason cult. They’re hilarious, passionate about beer and insanely welcoming. I’d put up a link to them singing their song, cribbed from this Simpsons scene, but I fear I might be breaking some rules of the ancient order of Osiris if I did so. It’s a brilliant event – a great start to the tour. And it ends with Brooklyn brewmaster Garrett Oliver pouring secret, unlabelled bottles from his experimental stash until I can no longer see.

Next day it’s over to Jersey City for a tour with my friend John Holl and a look around the Departed Soles Brewery. Saying you tasted wonderful IPAs in this country is like saying the sun rises here, but these guys make a really wonderful IPA. So there.

Back over to Brooklyn and Heritage Radio, to do Beer Sessions, with Jimmy Carbone. This is my third programme talking about Miracle Brew in two days, but everyone has wanted to explore different things within the book, and I’m on the programme with Jason Sahler, the founder of the Strong Rope Brewery, which makes a point of using ingredients entirely from New York state, so we have a great chat about terroir and the role of place in beer ingredients. Jason’s stuff really is worth checking out. You can listen to our show here. 

Afterwards, it’s great to go out and explore a few bars with Jason, Qurban Walia from Crafted Exports, who ships beers both ways between the UK and US, Ed Valenta of Harpoon Brewing who flew down from Boston to have a beer with us, and Qurban’s friend who looks eerily like Eric Cantona, and has no idea who that is until I spend all night telling him how much he looks like Eric Cantona.

Yes, a German Style IPA. You got a problem with that?

 

My new ‘trying to keep my eyes open’ pose.

 

His Cantona is way better than my Russell Crowe, which seems to have faded…

And that’s New York. A whirlwind of breweries, bars and banter, and hardly any of it in Manhattan itself. It’s so nice to get a picture of the broader city, the different rhythms and textures within it. Does it make any difference to book promotion? I have no idea. But Miracle Brew was already being stocked in Barnes & Noble, and being able to see that alone made the trip.

Next Time: Boston and Vermont.

Miracle Brew is my third book to receive a bespoke US publication, but the first where the publisher has devoted so much time and expense to promoting the title. I’m enormously grateful to Chelsea Green Publishing for flying me across and organising my itinerary. Thanks so much guys.