Category: Books

| 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.

| 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.’