I’ve set myself the task of writing and publishing a book during lockdown, and sharing my experience with anyone else thinking of doing the same, especially if it’s the first time you’ve tried. This week, we’re finally deep into the main part: getting the words down.
Word count at the start of this week: 31832
Before I had my own first book published, I used to have a whole shelf of books with titles like ‘How to become a published author.’ I’d read the blurbs on the back cover and they’d invariably say something like “xxxxx is a global bestselling author who has written 18 books, and now they share their secrets!” And I’d think “Well how come I’ve never heard of you then?”
Then, one day, I spotted Stephen King’s On Writing. I’d never read any of King’s books at that point, but I thought, “He’s one of the best-selling writers in the world. I bet he knows what he’s talking about.”
He does. I reread King every time before I start a book. Full or practical advice, it’s also inspiring and makes you want to write.
Wanting to write is the most useful bit.
Actually sitting down and getting the words out is the hardest part of being a writer. There are bits where it feels like your brain is trying to climb out of your ear and make a run for it. Times when you look at the page and you just know that completing a sentence is beyond your powers. Yesterday I wrote 280 words in a day, and they are shit words that will need to be rewritten at some point. Today so far I’ve written 1800, and I feel like I have more to come if I can get other chores finished and still have some energy left.
Most writers I know have a specific time of day when it works best. Only you know when your time is. Bruce Robinson, writer of Withnail and I, wrote in the small hours of the morning, drinking red wine as he did so, until he was wankered by the time his family get up for breakfast. I used to enjoy my attempts at writing fiction in the evenings. But doing what I do now, the hours between 7am and 11am are precious. If I try to write all day, by the end, 80% of what I’ve done happens in that time slot.
For some writers it’s about a word count rather than a time slot. I don’t fetishise my wordcount as much as I used to, but it’s still the measure of success I use in a first draft. Once the words are down you can move them, cut them, change them, polish them. I massively overwrite, and then rely first on my wife, and then my editor, to help me rein it back in. (On this book, that’s the same person.)
Some novelists start writing not knowing how the story is going to turn out. For a heavily researched non-fiction book, you can’t do that. That’s why I spend so much time doing the planning I’ve spoken about in previous posts. I see the research and planning as laying road, and once the road is down, I can run along it. There are various adventures along the way.
I wrote the last thousand words I did today in less than an hour. There was a bunch of italicised notes sitting between chunks of finished text I wrote last week, and whenever I wrote those, for some reason this but wasn’t happening, so I left it to come back to later. I refer to these bits as ‘thickets’. They’re usually caused by me having to synthesise several different lines of research, or link one big point to the next in a smooth way. They can hold me up for hours.
One useful way of getting through them is to switch from typing to trying to write out what I want to say longhand. It seems to call on a different part of the brain that looks at the writing in a different way.
If this doesn’t work, the trick is to leave it and move on to something else, which is what I did last time I got stuck on this part. The brain continues to process its way through the thicket at some deep level, or maybe you were just so close to it you couldn’t see the wood for the trees. Coming back to it today, it was suddenly clear again, a stretch of open road that I galloped down for about a thousand words before I needed a breather.
My other main hazard on the open road is the rabbit hole. This is when I’m running along and get tripped up by something seemingly small and innocuous. Last week, I wanted to write two sentences which showed that, craft beer notwithstanding, there was a general preference among a large number of people to buy from small, independent businesses rather than large corporations. So I googled these words and immediately got a hit on an American study that showed trust in both big and small companies was high, but trust in smaller companies was higher. Then the hit below that was from another study that showed only 30% of people trusted large corporations. Both studies were by reputable organisations with large sample sizes. The discrepancy might have had something to do with how the question as asked – it often does – but apart from that I wanted to find some UK stats for comparison, and soon I’d spent an hour getting increasingly frustrated researching something that will be a maximum of two sentences tossed off in passing, and may even end up being edited from the final manuscript.
So the next couple of weeks are about hitting the open road, getting the words down, and remembering to leave thickets and rabbit holes and come back to them later, as part of what builders refer to as ‘snagging’ at the end of a job.
To paraphrase Eric Morecambe, it’s about getting the right words down – just not necessarily in the right order yet.
My new book The Meanings of Craft Beer: Why The Term ‘Craft Beer’ is Completely Undefinable, Hopelessly Misunderstood and Absolutely Essential, will be published in e-book, audiobook and print-on-demand formats globally on 25th June.
I’m writing and self-publishing a book during lockdown, and sharing my experience with anyone else thinking of doing the same, especially if it’s the first time you’ve tried. This week: getting closer to the real words.
Word-count at the start of week 3: 21581
I started this series of blog posts by showing how I plan a book on my wall using post-its. To show what happens next, I need to jump back a bit.
This book was inspired by my having read one book in the stack above: Cræft, by Alexander Langlands. As the idea took shape, and grew from a rough talk to a scripted slideshow presentation, and then to a long essay and finally into a book-length treatment, so my reading expanded. I think this is only the second time I’ve had a book idea directly as a result of reading someone else’s, but even if a book I telling the story of me taking a physical journey, I always do a lot of desk research before I set off. My reading for this project has been going on for about a year now.
The first few weeks of the process are great fun. I usually start off with one book, or maybe a Wikipedia entry, and check the sources and bibliography for other titles. Certain books are mentioned again and again, and you soon realise these are the pre-eminent books in their field. I tend to be a bit of a generalist with my own books, covering a broad area, so I’m never that worried about finding someone else who has done exactly what I’m aiming to do.
Once I have a list of every book I need, I can pick them up pretty cheaply. If you haven’t come across it, AbeBooks is an aggregator of thousands of bookshops around the world. Unless one of the titles you’re looking for is particularly rare, you can usually pick up any book for less than a fiver, including postage. If you’re looking for something old and out of copyright, there’s a good chance you can download a PDF or kindle of it for free from sites such as the Gutenberg Project.
The above photo shows the main pile of books I’ve used on this project.
Once I have my books, I have a fairly laborious research process that I would love to improve upon, but haven’t been able to. I read each book with a pencil in my hand, marking the passages I think I might want to directly refer to, and writing any thoughts that occur to me while reading in the margin. After I’ve finished each one, I sit with the book at my desk, and write up a set of notes, each book in a separate word document, copying out the marked passages and either paraphrasing them or typing them as direct quotes. I write up my marginalia in italics so I can see what were my own thoughts and insights and what I’m taking from the text itself. At a certain point, when I think I have enough research (and it’s never easy to drag yourself from the research to the writing phase) that’s when I go through all my notes and generate the famous wall of post-its, to which I add much more of my own material, notes from travel if I’ve done any for the book, and so on.
I detailed last week how I get from a wall of random post-its to an outline of the book in a word document. At this stage, I would love it if I could just start writing, referring back to my notes as and when I need to. On an article, that would be easy. But for a 50,000- to 100,000-word book, the scope of it, the expanse of it, is simply too much for me to keep in my head at this stage. I think this is why so many people who would love to write a book are daunted by the prospect: how do you keep any kind of coherence over such a long slog?
By the time I’m close to finishing writing a book, the whole thing is alive inside my brain. I know where every key point is, almost down to the page number. I can almost see the shape and structure of the book in my head, and turn it in virtual space to look at it from all angles, checking the joins and the flow. But when I’m in that state, there’s no room for anything else in my brain. If my wife pops her head round the door and asks if I’d like a cup of tea, I forget my name and what day it is, and find myself completely unable to answer. This is not a good place to be for any longer than a week or two. So to get to that state at the right time, I have to use more tricks.
(By the way – if you’re writing a book that’s more of a reference or guide, you don’t need to worry about any of this. If you know you’re writing a guide to, say, the best 300 beers from Belgium, you know how long each entry has to be and what information has to be in it. It’s no less of a slog, and the monotony of it brings its own special endurance challenges, but at least the route is clearly marked out for you. With a long-form narrative – fiction or non-fiction – you have to lay down the road before you can travel upon it.)
So here’s what I’ve been doing over the last week.
My notes from books gave me my post-its, and the post-its gave me my outline. But by the time I’ve written the outline down, I can’t remember who said what or where most things come from. At this stage, I have no option but to go back to my notes and go through them in detail to start fleshing out the outline.
I’m learning a lot of new stuff here, in a subject area I haven’t explored before. I’m not yet quite confident enough with the fine detail. The structure is different from anything else I’ve written in that it’s not a story – chronological or based on a journey or whatever – it’s an argument. So I know the book falls into parts 1, 2 and 3, and that part 2 itself splits into an intro and three main sub-parts: (o), (i), (ii), and (iii). So I go through every page of my notes, and mark up which part of the book each point belongs in.
As I write or cut and paste each point across, I put a line through it.
Often, as I’m copying a point across, or I put two previously separate bits together, it will spark a thought and I’ll write a sentence, a paragraph, or even a page or two. Every single rush or spark of inspiration is precious, so I let it run its course before going back to transcribing the notes. Anything that’s cut and pasted joins the italicised outline, to distinguish it now from my own text in the main font.
I’ll be honest: this bit doesn’t feel like proper writing. But by the end, I know that, say, part 2(i) is all about the nineteenth century Arts & Crafts movement and that every point I have about Arts & Crafts is in part 2(i) of the document, in approximately the right order. I now have a 20,000-word manuscript, some of which has random outbursts of writing which hopes to make it to the finished text, the rest of which still needs to be rewritten and joined up into a proper narrative.
So that’s the boring bit out of the way. I have nearly everything I need in the document that will eventually become the book. Next task: actually write the bastard, in my own words.
The Meanings of Craft Beer: Why the term ‘craft beer’ is completely undefinable, hopelessly misunderstood and absolutely essential, which be published in e-book, audiobook and print-on-demand formats globally on 25th June.
I’ve set myself a task of writing and self-publishing a new book in 13 weeks. I’m sharing the process in case it helps anyone else who is thinking of spending lockdown starting a book they’ve been wanting to write. Here’s how I plan the structure of my first draft.
I posted some slightly psychedelic images on Insta a couple of weeks ago. From 13th March I was in quarantine in my study and our spare room, and you could have been forgiven for thinking it was sending me mad. But this is how I’ve started every book since Shakespeare’s Local.
As readers of my narrative books will know, my style tends to be rambling and discursive. But it does have a method. When I write about beer, I want to link it to the wider world and place it on context. For me, a good book (of mine) should contain some history, some storytelling, some personal experience and insight, and various other elements running through the book like threads. I think this multi-faceted approach raises the chances of it being more relevant to a wider group of people. You probably wouldn’t want every beer book written in my style, but it works for me.
When I did Shakespeare’s Local – the story of one London pub over 600 years – I realised pretty quickly that the history of the building itself – which the books was supposedly about – was not book-length and was only really of interest to students of architecture. The book couldn’t just be about the building – it had to be about the area and why the pub was there, and why it was so important. It had to be about the people who drank in it – but just listing the famous people who may or may not have drunk there wasn’t enough. To tell the full story I had to talk about commerce, theatre, the River Thames, the Guilds of the City of London, the evolution of pubs more generally, and much more that helps contextualise the pub and explain why its existence is significant and interesting to read about.
One option could have been to have a chapter on each aspect. But I wanted to tell a chronological story where each chapter had all these different themes running through it. This was a complex undertaking, and trying to plot and plan how to do it would bring me out in a cold sweat. So I adapted a method I started using when writing Dungeons & Dragons scenarios as a teenager and mixed in some techniques from strategy workshops in my advertising days – I’m not sure which of those two admissions I should be most ashamed of – and came up with this.
As I’m reviewing and finalising my notes, I put each key point I want to make on a post-it. I use different colours for different themes. For Shakespeare’s Local it might have been green for the local history of Southwark, pink for the history of pubs generally, yellow for my lame jokes and so on. For The Meanings of Craft Beer, pink is how the craft beer industry works, orange is the history of craft in a broader sense, green is an insight or idea I might have had myself while reading, pale yellow is stuff on the nature of work, blue is about the definitional problems of ‘craft beer’, and on it goes. Over a period of weeks, as I’m working, the post-its gradually populate the wall. The image above was taken when I’d almost finished, when I was nearing the cut-off of what I was going to read and explore before I stopped putting off writing the thing.
The next step is to look at all the post-its and start to group the ones that seem like they belong together in a narrative sense. That takes a couple of days, and this time it ended up looking like this:
Most of these post-its moved many times over the couple of days I was doing this – connections can be made in different places. This is the bit where I stare at the wall and pretend to be a DCI in a crime show. Often I just stare for hours. Sometimes it’s a struggle to get things to connect. Other times your brain does a lot of sub-processing and eventually sees the pattern. If you’re old enough to remember the brief, strange craze for ‘Magic Eye’ pictures in the early 1990s, and you were one of the people for whom it worked, it can be a bit like that.
While I was sorting and grouping, I had a breakthrough which you can see from the three big post-its, which I added afterwards – the book naturally fell into three parts, as I outlined in my previous blog. That hasn’t happened before – usually I get six, or seven, or eight or ten clouds of post-its and have to work out what order they go in. This time, as I was shifting things around, the structure emerged and I realised it was a linear argument: break something down, learn a lot of new stuff from different sources, use the new material to build it back up again.
That’s when I knew I had the overall book here. Then it was a question of refining. A day later, it looked like this:
I’ve now got each point in order. I can see just from looking at it that the first part, the left-hand column, is mainly about definitional semantics. I can see the middle column is the main part of the book, which starts by explaining broader themes of craft and then brings in more beer stuff, and I can see that, rather pleasingly, part three is a mix of all areas.
When I’m happy that everything is in the right order (with a few points that don’t belong anywhere on the far right, probably to be dropped from the book) I take them down carefully in order to my desk, and then write up an outline of the book in note form. When I finished this, I had the first 3000 words of the book down. One of the hardest parts in writing any book is looking at the blank page and summoning up the courage to start. Sneaking around that is just one advantage of this method.
That was two weeks ago. I’m now up to 13,000 worlds as I start to flesh out the structure out and do the actual writing. The quality of the writing is not yet good enough. But I now know what I want to say and where I want to say it, so I can now concentrate on rhythm and tone, and focus on finding the right words.
I’ll post again with how that’s going, and more thoughts on what might be helpful if you haven’t done this before. I’m also planning a live webinar to chat through the book-writing process if enough people are interested. But now, the word count is calling…
I’ve set myself a 13-week project: to write and self-publish a new book that I’ve been wanting to write for the last year. Here’s what it’s all about.
I find myself between jobs. Between assignments. Between books. We have no household income for now. Being a freelance writer is precarious enough at the best of times. Being a freelance writer in the first industry to be completely shut down by Coronavirus is pretty absolute.
Lockdown is psychologically tough for everyone. The thing is… back in the olden days I used to pay good money to hire a cottage near the sea where I could be on my own, not speak to anyone, and rarely leave the house. It’s something I do at least once, if not twice, in the process of writing a book. I get the most insane amount of work done in those writing weeks. So now I’m presented with similar circumstances (albeit without the sea, sadly) the sensible thing to do would seem to be to write a new book. So yesterday, I took to social media to gauge interest in a self-published e-book and audiobook (the lead times on paper books are much longer) and the response has encouraged me to make it happen. So here goes!
This is an idea that grew out of a short, ten minute talk, into a longer 25-minute talk, and then into an hour-long slideshow presentation. I was expecting people to be annoyed by it. Instead, the audiences of those shows asked me when the book was coming out. When I said there was no book, they told me in no uncertain terms that there should be.
It’s fair to say that it’s a niche topic and both my agent and the usual publishers I work with have no interest in it. But publishers work in one country at a time and the niche audience who will be interested ion this book on a global scale os pretty big, hopefully. So digital self-publishing is the way to go.
OK Pete, but what’s the frikkin’ book ABOUT? I hear you ask. OK, here goes.
A year or so ago, I picked up this then-newly published book:
It mentions craft beer once on the first page, and then never again. Instead, it puts forward an argument for working with your hands and reviving skills that our technological age has seemingly deprived us of.
It made me realise that the word ‘craft’, when shackled to the word ‘beer’, has had its meaning changed quite substantially. It also made me realise that one big reason there is no satisfactory definition of ‘craft beer’ is that in order to have one, you need to have the definition of the word ‘craft’ fairly locked down. And it isn’t. It’s a word that shifts meaning and struggles against being pinned down.
From here I went off on a journey exploring the concept of ‘craft’ in its broadest sense: the difference between craft, art and science; the artificial separation of manual work and intellectual work; the difference between learned knowledge and innate knowledge and how craft unites the two. I explored the Victorian Arts & Crafts movement and visited William Morris’s house in Walthamstow. I read books by hippie furniture makers, Victorian wheelwrights and professors of linguistics. Each book I read had something important and life-affirming in it. It was a diverse selection of voices, but each one spoke about what makes work, and ultimately life, more meaningful.
Coming back to conversations around craft beer with this broader perspective on craft, I realised that we’re talking about the wrong things. Craft beer is – or can be – an important, meaningful and nourishing concept. In fact it is. When I’ve been speaking to drinkers and makers of craft beer about some of the ideas I’ve explored, they recognise them from their own experience, instantly. But our conversations aren’t framing that experience in a useful way, and that’s why all those debates around the definition of craft beer are so fruitless and infuriating.
So at the moment, the book is called The Meanings of Craft Beer: Why The Term ‘Craft Beer’ Is Completely Undefinable, Hopelessly Misunderstood, and Absolutely Essential. Like most of my books, it’s totally about beer, and at the same time, kind of not really about beer at all.
The book falls into three three parts:
Part One: ‘Craft Beer’ is Completely Undefinable
I kick of by looking at the evolution of the concept of craft beer, analysing and demolishing attempts to give it a concrete, technical definition, and exploring why this is an impossible task.
Part Two: ‘Craft Beer’ is Hopelessly Misunderstood
Here, in the main part of the book, I explore the broader concept of craft and, where relevant, give examples from beer. I look at the definition of ‘craft’ itself, before going into detail around what I see as three key times when interest in craft spiked, and why:
i) The Arts and Crafts movement of the late nineteenth century, in response to the industrialisation of work (when brewing was going through its own industrial and technological revolution.)
ii) The craft revival of the 1970s, in response to the automation of manual labour and the growth of big brand corporations (when CAMRA appeared in the UK and what would later be called craft brewing emerged in the US.)
iii) The craft revival of the 2010s, in response to online existence, the absolute dominance of corporations, and the deskilling of white-collar work (when the craft beer boom went global.)
Part Three: Craft Beer is Absolutely Essential
Having destroyed definitions of craft beer, then looked at the world of craft more broadly, we come back to ‘craft beer’ and rebuild it using what we’ve learned. I’ll argue that even if it can’t be technically defined, it remains a meaningful and important concept, and focus on the issues that make it so. I finish by looking at alternative terms and dismissing these too, before suggesting a tongue-in-cheek solution for what we should in fact call it.
If that sounds like something you’d be interested in reading, keep checking in here, where as well as writing the book, I’ll also be going through my process, sharing my thoughts around it and talking about how I work, in case that’s useful for anyone else who is considering using this strange time to write that book you’ve always wanted to write.
I’m currently weighing up different options for publication, looking at the pros and cons of Kindle, Patreon etc. I’ll share my experience of this side of things too. My intention is to publish an e-book and audio book (with me narrating) on 25th June, retailing at somewhere between £5 and £7.
I got invited to a birthday party in Burton-on-Trent that was quite unlike any other – a mass tasting of six legendary beers known as the ‘Bass Corkers’.
On 16th December 1869, Ratcliff Ale was mashed in at Bass, Ratcliff & Gretton in Burton-on-Trent to celebrate the birth of a son to the Ratcliff family. It was a fairly common tradition in brewing families for such beers to be brewed ready for when these scions reached their majority at the age of 21. The story I heard was that young Master Ratcliff never made it that far, so the beer was never opened.
On 16th December 2019, I’m in Burton to drink some Ratcliff Ale on its 150th birthday, along with five other variations on these beers designed for ageing, know to connoisseurs and collectors as the ‘Bass Corkers’.
Bass fan and Burton beer historian Ian Webster, ably assisted by passionate fellow Burtonian beer collector Gary Summerfield, wanted to commemorate Ratclliff Ale’s anniversary, and put an appeal around Burton. Burton responded, with people donating scores of bottles – a total of 75 beers are opened for tonight’s audience of 100 or so people. This is an incredible act given that some of these bottles trade on EBay for £300 or more. I thought I knew these beers well, but I’m astonished to find there are pint bottles and quart bottles, with the occasional ultra-rare magnum.
The way these strong ales were made was to boil the wort for twelve hours, reducing the liquid to create a very high concentration of fermentable sugars. This led to an alcohol content of around 12% ABV which, aided by heavy hopping rates, vastly reduced the chances of microbial spoilage as they aged, according to Burton Brewer and Chairman of the National Brewery Heritage Trust, Dr Harry White. Harry explains the difference between the effects of microbiological spoilage – infection that means the beer goes ‘off’ – and the effects of ageing, which is all about oxidation.
Oxidation as ‘a complex series of interactions’ that begin with whatever oxygen is left in the bottle when it is sealed. There’s always some, and a bottle-conditioned beer needs it to start its slow, secondary fermentation. The yeast mops up the oxygen during this process, but then, when there’s nothing left for it to eat, it dies. When beer is a few years old it can taste stale, papery, or wet doggy. But there’s not a straight line into old age and decrepitude – other reactions continue to happen, and various different aspects of the beer come and go in a process John Keeling, when he was head brewer at Fuller’s, likened to sine waves, during vertical tastings of Fuller’s Vintage Ale. Those tastings were truly memorable – but even the most venerable Vintage Ale – from 1997 – is fifteen years younger than the most youthful Bass Corker, which is…
Prince’s Ale, 1982
Starting with the youngest first, the idea is you get some kind of progression. This 37-year-old, brewed to commemorate the birth of Prince William, tastes more like a three-year-old barley wine. There’s chocolate and caramel on the nose, some fruity notes reminiscent of ruby port, and no hint of papery oxidation at all. It tastes different rather than old, with a hint of meaty umami character, some acidity, but mainly a warming, welcoming fusion of malt character, alcohol and microflora.
Princess Ale, 1978
This has a much paler caramel colour than its younger sibling. It’s much lighter on the nose, toffeeish, with hints of spice and incense. On the palate it’s lighter again, with a bitterness that’s curiously tannic rather than hoppy. Overall, it tastes old and woody – not as engaging as the beer four years younger, but just as drinkable. Maybe it’s something to do with Princess Anne having mashed the beer in, given that she doesn’t like beer.
Jubilee Strong Ale, 1977
This is much darker again, chocolate-coloured. There’s a little tartness on the nose, which reminds me of Rodenbach, and a bit of smokiness. On the palate, it’s sweet, sour and bitter – I swear there’s still a bit of hop character to it – and something that is not directly derived from hops, barley, Burton water OR Bass ale yeast.
I’m on a tasting panel with Roger Protz and a selection of former Burton Brewers. My old friend Steve Wellington – another former brewer and the man who recreated A 19th century Burton IPA for the voyage to India I recounted in Hops & Glory – is in the audience. Steve once told me that when you taste aged beers, you get a different reaction from professional brewers than you do if you assemble a broader panel of taste experts – and so it proves with this beer. The brewers up here speak of mild infection, of something getting into the bottle that shouldn’t be there. Whereas I’m thinking that Brettanomyces means ‘British fungus’, so named because it was originally associated not with Belgian sours, but vatted strong British ales. This beer reminds me that Rodenbach – one of the finest sour beers in the world – took its original inspiration from none other than Greene King.
Prince’s Ale, 1929
Why was there a jump of fifty years between this beer and the previous (or rather, subsequent) one? I don’t know. The war was an obvious factor, but why was there not one for the Queen’s coronation? I can vaguely remember her Silver Jubilee and the incredible wave of patriotism that came with it. It was also around the same time that a large stash of the 1902 Kings Ale was discovered in Bass’s cellars, so maybe that inspired the idea for the start of the second wave of corkers that ran from 1977 to 1982.
But now we’re on to the end of the first wave, mashed in by Edward, Prince of Wales, who went on to become king for a few months before abdicating to marry an American divorcee. It had the shortest brew length of all the corkers, and is therefore the rarest. Apparently, it was still on sale in 1945, for £5 a bottle. or over £200 today – one for people who moan about ‘modern over-priced craft beers’ to think about.
Well, if I had a spare £200, I’d pay that for a bottle today. The nose is of dried fruit – dates, prunes, figs and currants – with a hint of church incense again. The fruity character is intense, combining the complex sweetness of dried fruit with the sourness of overripe fruit. Then there’s an umami meatiness that some of my colleagues on the panel describe as marmite.
I’m not so sure.
There’s a moment of panic whenever you’re trying to taste something with the aim of identifying that taste and communicating it to others. It’s the moment when your taste buds and olfactory bulb all flash with sensation and send blind signals deep into your cerebral cortex, and your brain seeks to contextualise what you’re experiencing versus your established knowledge and memory. When you’re primed to expect a particular flavour – when you know what you’re drinking and what it’s meant to taste like, or when someone asks you to look out for a particular flavour note – the brain usually identifies it straight away, or thinks it does. ‘Marmite’ is a common flavour note for aged beers, and if you know this, you can detect it and tick it off – flavour successfully identified. But if you didn’t know this, I’m not sure Marmite is what you’d pull out here. I’m conscious that I’ve already used it as a flavour note myself, but Marmite is a shortcut, an easy port of call, similar to when we categorise and tick off the complexity of lambic beers with the term ‘horse blanket’. It often stops us from probing further. This is spicier yet subtler than Marmite, the meatiness just one component of something broader.
King’s Ale, 1902
The danger with the Bass corkers is you can never be quite sure how well the contents stand up. If the wax seal around cork has broken, it’s probably not worth it, as the beer will have been assaulted by oxygen over the years. So you look for the wax seal – but how do you know it wasn’t broken, and then resealed by someone decades later? When it comes to the Kings Ale, brewed by Lord Bass’s mate Edward VII, there’s an easy way to tell: the original bottlings came with a lead seal, and that’s what we’ve opened tonight.
I opened a bottle of Kings Ale in 2009, to celebrate winning Beer Writer of the Year for the first time. There’s a blurry video of it on YouTube somewhere. My bottle didn’t have a lead seal. It poured with the look and consistency of gravy and tasted like of cork, marmite – for real this time – and death.
Tonight’s is… better than that. There’s a big waft of balsamic vinegar on the nose, and a surprisingly yeasty element. Umami here is not marmite, but porcini mushrooms. There’s chocolate, acidity and fruit on the palate. It tastes like an older, raggedier version of the Prince’s Ale, which makes sense. But still, it’s far from unpleasant.
Ratcliff Ale, 1869
These bottles were originally sealed with red wax, so if your wax is black – like one of mine at home is – that means the contents may not be good. This one smells really clean, and pours bright and clear, like Madeira. The now-familiar incense is there, and it smells like Christmas cake. There’s bitterness and acidity, coffee and spice, alcohol heat, Madeira wine, and elements I simply don’t have the vocabulary for. It tastes like nothing else.
By the end, I’m surprised how much I’m feeling the effects of drinking a flight of 12% ABV beers. I’ve often heard that the alcohol decays and loses its potency in beers like this. My intense desire for sleep, and the spidery handwriting in my notebook, suggest otherwise.
I’ve tasted beers that are alive and vibrant, and I’ve had beers that taste dead and decayed. The beers we’ve tasted tonight are somewhere between, having visited both poles before embarking on their own, unique journeys. There’s far more here than the effects of oxygen-driven ageing: these beers are complex processes. Tate two different bottles of the same beer, and their character can be quite different. It reminds me of the ‘generative music’ experiments created by Brian Eno, where a few simple elements are fed into a randomising system to create something that is ever changing, never quite repeating. Here, tiny differences in the microflora in each bottle can lead to ever-widening variations over time, magnified by the conditions in which each individual bottle matures – temperature, humidity, whether it’s stored upright or on its side, and so on.
Will there be more Bass corkers? Could there be? Well, the Queen’s Ale for Brenda’s 50th Jubilee was bottled in 500ml with a crown cap, but is still well worth seeking out. Apart from that, around ten years ago, Steve Wellington invited me to brew a new batch of Bass No.1 Barley Wine – the original recipe for Ratcliff Ale. We loaded an incredible amount of malt into the mash tun and left it for its 12-hour boil. A curry and a few hours’ sleep later, we were back in the brewery and running off a thick, dark wort that looked and smelled amazing. A few weeks later, Steve, almost tearful, informed me that it had been so long since the Bass yeast had had to contend with such a mighty wort, it simply hadn’t been up to the task. Fermentation hadn’t taken place, and the batch had had to be poured away.
And that’s not the only problem.
In the complex world of corporate beer trademarks and ownership, the archive of Bass recipes is now owned by a different company from the people who own the Bass brand. Anheuser Busch-Inbev continue to commit many travesties with Bass, but ABI has more than one face and more than one set of opinions. Mike Siegel of Goose Island is genuinely passionate about recreating old beers from the past, as evidenced by his recent collaboration with Ron Pattinson and Wimbledon Brewery’s Derek Prentice, the wonderful Obidiah Poundage. Mike recently asked Molson Coors – owners of the Bass archive – if he could gain access to old Bass recipes with a view to reviving something akin to these legendary corkers, and was given a pretty categoric and final refusal.
Earlier tonight, Harry White made a heartfelt plea to the audience for the archives to be used much more.
Come on guys, it’s Christmas – let’s join the dots. And could whoever currently owns the famous Bass yeast get it to some kind of yeast gym in the New Year?
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 differing stories of Wensleydale and Roquefort to be quite staggering in 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.
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.
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.”
One of the biggest frustrations for brewers is when people who self-identify as lovers of good beer insist that it should always, without exception, be inexpensive. Is it fair to condemn this inverse snobbery? Or could the industry and beer communicators be doing a better job of explaining and justifying the high price tags attached to some beers?
Notwithstanding the steady descent of Twitter generally into a platform for people to get furious over trivia and hurl abuse at people they don’t know, there’s been a spat going on over the last few days between a couple of contrarians and a bunch of beer people over the ‘outrageous’ price of a beer someone mentioned.
I immediately intervened on the side of the industry people defending and justifying the expense of some beers, tweeting:
“I find it amazing every time someone who claims to love beer asserts that beer can never be worth more than what you pay for the average pint. I’ve never heard a wine lover declare that Chateau Lafite, for example, should cost the same as Blossom Hill.”
I steadfastly believe in the validity of this comparison. But looking at the sheer ignorance of the people we were debating with, two things occurred to me. One, yes, it’s probably not worth bothering engaging with people who for some reason have chosen to spend their precious time on this planet arguing with people they don’t know about subjects on which they are entirely ignorant. But two, the frequency with which this particular attitude surfaces suggests that perhaps we’re at fault too. It’s not just on social media: in pubs and bars, when there’s some strong, rare beer being sold in thirds or halves only, there’s always someone who works out the cost of a pint (even though you can’t buy a pint) and decries how outrageous it is. Sometimes it even makes national news. And yet, we never see stories about what a rip-off it is that a pub wine list has a house white at 13.5% ABV for £14 and another wine at £65 that’s also £13.5% ABV. Even those (perhaps especially those) who are ignorant about wine are quite happy to accept that some wines are intrinsically worth more than others. If asked to explain why, they might invent an answer, but they would probably be more likely to come up with an explanation that sounds plausible to their ears rather than crying foul on pricing.
That such people are unable to do the same for beer surely says more about them than it does beer, but we can’t let them shoulder all the blame. Some of the replies to these people have been impatient, perhaps even condescending, and I thought: why would we assume people would have this knowledge when, unless they’re avid readers around beer or visitors of breweries, no one has told them?
So, in a blog post that won’t make a blind bit of difference to the professional contrarians whose only motivation is winding people up on Twitter to afford the illusion that their sad little lives mean something, here are three examples, offered with the best intentions, to explain why some beers cost more than others. These are not the only three – but they’re the three that came to my mind first.
1. Some beers have more stuff in them than other beers.
Here’s an interesting stat: in North America, craft brewers account for around ten per cent of total beer volume brewed. But craft brewers buy 25 per cent of all the hops grown in America. That means on average, craft brewers put two and a half times as many hops into their beers as mainstream commercial breweries. That means the cost of the hops going into each pint is at least two and a half times higher. (Possibly more when economies of scale and sizes of contracts are taken into account.) If you don’t like hoppy beer, or don’t want to pay a premium for it, that’s your choice. But surely the financial logic is undeniable. And that’s before you take into account the extra expense of ensuring a very hoppy beer remains chilled from the point of packaging to the point it’s bought by the drinker, to preserve the freshness of the hops.
2. Some beers take longer to make than other beers
There are various examples of this, but let’s look at lager. The word ‘lager’ means ‘to store’, and it’s generally accepted that a good quality lager should be lagered, or conditioned, at low temperatures for at least four weeks. This is because the yeast throws out various flavour compounds as it’s fermenting and conditioning. But left long enough, the yeast will then reabsorb these compounds, leaving a fresh, clean beer that’s crisp and refreshing but still has flavour and character. Not only does the lagering process tie up your capital for weeks because you can’t sell the beer you’ve just bought all the ingredients for and paid someone to make, it needs to be stored at cool temperatures – around two degrees Celsius. Keeping huge rooms full of tanks at that temperature consistently costs a serous amount of money. Budweiser Budvar lagers its beers in this way for at least ninety days. Some mainstream commercial brands go from brewing to packaging in 72 hours. If asked, they’ll tell you that modern technology has removed the need for lagering time. But taste a properly lagered lager alongside one that’s been made in a few days, and you might be sceptical about this.
3. Some beers use rare or special ingredients or processes
Lambic and geueze beers were at the centre of the recent Twitter spat. There are many, means reasons why these beers are expensive compared to a mainstream lager, but I want to focus on just one.
Instead of adding laboratory-cultured yeasts to start the fermentation of sugar into alcohol, lambic brewers rely on the natural yeasts in the air around them. It’s not quite the same thing as sourdough versus regular bread, but it’s close enough for comparison. The air around us is filled with a swirling cocktail of microflora, and its composition changes depending on where you are. There are certain parts of Belgium where this airborne biome produces great results in beer: other parts, not so much. So beers in this style are tied to particular places. But the cocktail doesn’t just change depending on where you go; it changes depending on the time of year, too. In warmer months, the party gets a little crowded, and as well as the ‘good’ yeasts you want in your beer, there are lots of uglier critters floating around that will spoil the beer and made it undrinkable. This means lambic producers can only brew during certain months of the year. The traditional season runs from October to April, when the average temperature is between -8 degrees Celsius and +8 degrees Celsius. But global warming means this window is now narrowing: the unseasonal warm weather we’re having now is catastrophic for lambic brewers. At Cantillon, the world’s most famous lambic brewery, the limited brewing window has contracted from 165 days in the early 1900s to about 140 days today. Within that period, sudden spikes mean a beer has to get poured away. This is a small, family business – the beer you brew over 140 days – once it’s been stored for three years, matured and blended – has to support people’s livelihoods for the whole year round. Prices have to rise, or the company will go out of business.
I’m not denying that there are opportunistic brewers and retailers who are cashing in on the craft beer boom to sell beers at artificially inflated prices because there are people who are willing to pay them. But I offer these three stories as examples that not all beers are the same. Brewing is an extraordinarily complex process and the ingredients of beer are each complex in their own way.
As with anything you buy in the supermarket, there are cheap versions and expensive versions – if all you can afford is an Iceland spag bol at £1 for an individual portion, it would be wrong to judge. But surely you’d appreciate that a scratch-cooked version using better quality tomatoes and beef is going to taste better? Brewers face similar decisions to you. If you’re not interested or not able to afford the better quality stuff, fine. But it’s simply inverse snobbery to criticise those who would rather splash out.
If anyone is interested in learning more about beer’s complex and wonderful supply chain, and the incredible lengths growers, breeders and scientists go to help brewers produce great beer, try Miracle Brew:
You’ll never see beer in the same way again. I know I didn’t.
It’s seven weeks until the launch of my new book, Pie Fidelity.Here’s a bit that got cut from the chapter on breakfast, not because it’s 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 attained in the past, but no longer enjoy.
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 all 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 that 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 at home 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 to apply my sachet of HP. (Despite the sachet’s design, I sometimes even succeed in getting more onto the roll than on my hands, sleeve and chin.) Opening the roll to apply the sauce makes it more edible, but at the same time removes any desire to eat. 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 corner shops, and it’s never looked as mean and ugly as this. I’ve no idea where they get it from.
Even in the rare chains where the bacon is 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 here 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 is obviously carcinogenic. How could it not be?’
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.