Category: Uncategorised

| Mental Health, Uncategorised, Writing

A Personal Update

If you’re a fan of my writing, you may be wondering where I’ve been for most of 2023. Here’s what’s been happening and what I have planned for the future.

I wrote 12 books at this desk. Over the course of 23 years. I won’t be writing any more here.

Rooms always look so defeated when you’ve cleared them. The very act of taking stuff out spreads dirt and dust. The denuding of shelves and corners reveals a lot of dust and dirt you never knew were there, all the better to spread around. You lay down the marks of your presence, your habits, your rituals, and your leaving reveals them, shamefully.

As of now, this room belongs to someone else. This week we completed on the sale of the house we’ve lived in since 2001. I am very, very lucky that I was part of the last generation to be able to just about to afford to buy property in London without having rich parents.

Although it didn’t feel like it at the time, we were lucky again when my wife Liz was made redundant under dodgy circumstances, because the payout gave us a deposit. We were lucky yet again four years later, when the rundown, dodgy neighbourhood we could afford to buy in was named the site for the 2012 London Olympics, and received billions of pounds of investment, sending house prices soaring to a level we could never have afforded.

You don’t make much money as a writer. I had a house that is worth an awful lot of money, but apart from that, I had only debt. No savings, no investments, no pending inheritances, not even a regular income I could rely on. The Covid lockdown ruined me financially – for two years I earned less than my mortgage payments. 

We have no children to pass on our very expensive house to. So we’re cashing in – paying off the mortgage and all our debts, buying a house for less than half the price we’re selling ours for, and from now on, splitting our time between a small flat in London and a house in Norwich. 

When I tell people we’re moving to Norwich, people who haven’t been there often repeat “NORWICH? Why Norwich?” with a facial expression like this:

I am eternally grateful to Steve Coogan, and his creation, Alan Partridge, for the image they have created for Norwich and North Norfolk. Partridge, in all his ridiculous pomposity, is the kind of person you think you’re going to meet if you go there. I reckon that’s kept a couple of hundred grand off the price of the beautiful Georgian townhouse we’re buying.   

That house is twenty minutes walk from the centre of town, along (I swear on my life I didn’t know this when we first looked at the house) the NR3 Beer Mile, a stretch of eight or nine of the most delightful pubs I’ve ever seen. Beer costs 2/3 of what it does in London. The coast (all the North Norfolk coast, in different directions) is half an hour’s drive away. There are seals on the beach just now. People often ask “Why Norwich?!” That’s some reasons why. There are more. Here’s another:

This isn’t Ghent or Bruges. This is a pub 15 minutes walk from my new house. It specialises in cask ale and has 8-10 taps on at any given time, mostly from small local brewers. It has a deck that runs the length of the pub along the river.

What does this mean for my writing and your reading pleasure?

This has been the most difficult year of my life. In March my little brother died, alone, depressed and in anguish, due to illnesses related to chronic alcoholism. I didn’t want to write much about beer after that. I had to do a lot of soul searching, and a bit of therapy. I go stuck in the “anger” stage of grief for about five months, and my written output consisted mainly of me swearing at right-wing politicians on Twitter. If you wondered what was happening to me (some people did contact me, worried about my mental health) this was it. If you were offended or frustrated by anything I wrote, I apologise (unless you’re Rishi Sunak or Suella fucking Braverman.)

Anyway, I’m through that now. (You don’t get over grief; you just figure out how it live with it.) And the process of sorting out Stuart’s flat and estate gave us the impetus to move.

Now, without having to service thousands of pounds of debt every month, I have more time to write. And I can be choosier about what I do. In the New Year, I’ll be relaunching my writing career across varikous platforms.

A trade press article about trends in the fruited “cider” category which will take three days to research and pay £150? No thank you.

Reviews of afternoons spent in coastal pubs, musing life, just for the pleasure of it? Yes please. 

Norwich is famous for its excellent pubs – it used to boast one for every day of the year. And everywhere else from the North Norfolk coast to the Norfolk Broads to breweries such as the excellent Duration, Ampersand and Little Earth Project are, at most, a 45-minute drive away.

Apart from the local attractions, I have two new book ideas I’m working on, and the time to do them – after Clubland, I simply could not afford to write another book, and have had to spend most of the working time I’ve had this year on consultancy projects instead. I probably don’t have another 12 books left in me (sorry, new writing room) but I hope my best ones are still ahead of me.

I hope you’ll stick with me for the ride.

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New campaign to boost the image of cask ale

Finally, the beer industry has come together to promote cask ale. And I find myself right in the thick of it.

This week, the “Drink Cask Fresh” campaign launched in 27 pilot pubs across England. 

And after one of the co-founders of the campaign left the beer industry for a new job, I find myself running it.

The woes of cask ale can be pinned down to three main factors:

  • Quality: can be variable, especially if left on the bar too long ior not looked after properly.
  • Pricing: a beer that is every inch artisanal, quality, is priced cheaper than almost any other beer on the bar. Not only does that not exactly scream premium (see above) it means less margin for cash-strapped publicans, so they don’t prioritise cask, which exacerbates the other issues. 
  • Image: we tell ourselves that people see cask ale as the drink of old men with flat caps and weird beards (but not the hipster kind of flat cap and weird beard I guess). 

It’s within the gift of the brewing and pub industry to sort out the first two problems. All that’s needed is bold leadership and decisive action by people who care.  

The image problem is the one that’s externally facing. 

Each time we do talk about the negative image of “real ale” and its drinkers, we’re the ones perpetuating a stereotype that simply isn’t there outside the beer bubble. Every piece of research I’ve seen in the last sixteen years – and that’s a lot of research – shows that most beer drinkers haver the occasional pint of cask. When asked why they don’t drink more, only a tiny minority raise issues of the negative image we talk about. If they’re given a bunch of reasons to choose from, the most popular answer is usually “Don’t know.” In a world where repertoires are growing and breadth of choice is become a problem rather than a luxury, cask ale just doesn’t get into the consideration set.

It’s not a question of changing the image of cask ale; but one of giving it a reason to be there. So what’s that reason? 

We’ve banged on for years about it being Britain’s national drink. That works for some people, but not the younger drinkers who aren’t into it now. There’s the skill ,craft, flavour and attention, but craft beer already provides that, and it comes in cans with cartoons on them. 

One thing drinkers say they do care about is freshness. It’s one of the top two or three things they mention when thinking specifically about the beer. And they currently believe the freshest beer on the bar is bottle lager Why? Who knows? Maybe a residual hangover from Budweiser’s “born on date” campaign, but that was a while ago now. 

Anyway, the last beer they associate with freshness is cask ale. Which is ironic. Because it’s the freshest beer on the bar. Once it’s on, it has the shortest shelf-life of any beer. It’s more likely to have been brewed locally. So if the pub is any good, it spends less time in the cellar before it goes on the bar, and less time on the bat once it’s there.

Drinkers don’t currently associate freshness with cask Will they? And will it make them reappraise cask if they do?

That’s what the Drink Cask Fresh campaign aims to find out. 

In the pilot phase, the campaign will be evaluated by comparing 27 pilot pubs with a paired control pub, similar in profile and cask sales, and measuring the difference between them over the pilot period.

Campaign kits developed by agency Ape Creative include bright wraps to fit around pump clips, branded glassware and bar runners, and beer mats with different messages about cask ale that link through to a website, Here, they can learn more about how cask ale is not only the freshest beer on the bar, but also has a variety of flavours, is skilfully brewed and kept, and has strong sustainability stories. 

As well as examining sales data, qualitative market research will be undertaken with pub staff and with drinkers, to understand exactly how the campaign is working. This pilot runs from w/c 6th March to w/c 8th May. After that, if it’s successful, we hope to roll it out as a national campaign. At this stage, that’s when pubs who are passionate about cask can get involved.

But that’s going to take more budget from the industry. If you are interested in joining, please do drop me a line. In the meantime, please do visit the website and follow us on social media.   

| Beer, Craft - An Argument, Patreon, Pubs, Uncategorised

Craft Beer after Covid: Glass half-empty, glass half-full

Last month I set up a Patreon in the hope that a modest regular income would allow me to spend time researching key stories in much greater depth than I normally can unless I’m being paid a consultancy fee. In the first of these deep dives, I’ve looked at the future of craft beer post-lockdown – from the perspective of being fresh from “Craft: An Argument” – and tried to draw some conclusions. This is a summary of that work, with a fuller report with stats and detail available to Patrons.

Seeing both sides of an argument is different from sitting on the fence. 

There’s no point trying to play down the huge negative impact of Coronavirus and the lockdown it necessitated. The hospitality sector has been hit worse than most, and within that, there’s a lot of evidence to suggest the craft sector, consisting mainly of small, independent businesses, will end up faring worse than the mainstream:

  • – Small pubs and micropubs will find it more difficult to reopen than larger chains.
  • – While some small, independent brewers have done well with online sales and (free) local delivery, overall small brewers suffered an 80% drop in volume during lockdown and 65% had to close.
  • – The lack of sufficient notice that 4th July would definitely be the reopening date did not give small brewers enough time to prepare.
  • – With lower capacity, pubs are likely to reduce the number of lines on the bar – in fact they’d be wise to.
  • – Big brewers are giving huge support to pubs, including thousands of pints of free beer. Helpful to pubs, yes, but likely to pressure small brewers off the bar even further.

There will be a colossal short-term impact. Businesses are going bust and people are losing their jobs. They’ll continue to do so.

But that’s only half the story. 

While I wrote “Craft” during lockdown, I deliberately avoided speculating on what lockdown might mean for the craft beer movement, because that would have dated it quickly. In the book, I look beyond the issues of ownership and independence that have come to dominate the debate over what is and isn’t ‘craft’. 

The recent boom in craft – in beer and beyond – is a reaction to a mix of factors including the 2008 global financial crash, the spread of superfast, handheld mobile computing and communications, open plan office culture, the growing degree to which algorithms dictate our decisions and behaviours, the arrival of Artificial Intelligence, and the ongoing creep of corporate dominance and homogenisation in all aspects of our lives.

These factors combine to create two separate but related themes that drive craft. One, the personal need to do more with our hands than tap or swipe; to engage with the world around us in a more meaningful, physical way, and two, the desire to escape the corporate rat race, to live better, to be better, to be more fulfilled. 

If we can’t do these things personally, we console ourselves with actively choosing products from people whom we believe have done it on our behalf, and live vicariously through them. 

There have been many changes in lockdown, and we see some of them as positive. Almost all the positive ones feed directly into this narrative around the broader idea of craft. If, before lockdown, we wanted to reject a bland, boring mainstream, to slow down, to experience life more vividly and personally, to support local businesses, to be kinder and more compassionate, to reject the open-plan, “computer says no” office environment, lockdown has not only heightened those desires – it’s shown that it is possible for all of us to act on at least some of them.

Those craft brewers that survive the short-term hit will face an environment that, while remaining subdued, will be far more in tune with the principles that motivate the brewers, retailers and drinkers of craft beer than it was pre-Covid. At the moment, it seems that the underlying motivations and themes that make craft beer so appealing to an ever-increasing number of people are being strengthened by people’s experiences. For all its negative effects, for all the death and hurt the virus has caused and for all the economic hardship to come, lockdown was time-out, a chance to reflect. 

Stripped of the daily commute, the constant travel, the endless crowds, the noise and spectacle with which we usually fill our lives, we’ve had the chance to discover – or re-discover – what really matters to us. We’ve realised that, while this state of affairs is far from ideal, there are some good bits. 

Craft brewers – rightly or wrongly – are generally perceived as, among other things,  smaller and more independently-minded, more progressive in their attitudes, kinder, friendlier and more collaborative than their corporate, industrialised rivals, more face-to-face in their communications, more physically engaged with both the nature of their work and the communities they exist within and do business with. All of this has become more appealing as a result of lockdown. 

The future – eventually – will be bright. 

The full report is available on Patreon to anyone who signs on at the £3 tier or above. (While it’s a regular monthly subscription, you’re perfectly free to sign just for a month and then cancel.)

Craft: An Argument is available here on Kindle and here as a print-on-demand version. The audiobook will be ready as soon as the drilling stops outside my house.

| Beer, Cask ale, Cask report, Uncategorised

Calling publicans and bar staff – we need your for cask ale research!

It’s time for the Cask Report again – and if you work in a pub, I need to know what you REALLY think about cask ale…

Over the next couple of weeks I’m conducting focus groups with people who work in pubs to find out what you think of cask ale on both a professional and personal level.

If you’re interested in taking part, I need you to travel to a central city location and give us about 90 minutes of your time, for which I can pay you £30.

The point is to be honest. All responses will be anonymised and nobody’s name will get back to their employer. I need to hear what you really think, not what you know you are supposed to say or what you might think I want to hear.

I need to make up quotas of people with different attitudes, and spread my research evenly across different locations.

So if you’re interested, please copy and paste the info below, fill in the answers to what suits you and either leave it as a comment below this post or send it to me privately via my contact form here. I need all parts answered in order to build up a balanced set of groups. I’ll then let you know if I need you asap – it depends on how many responses I get in each place/category.

Thanks in advance for your help!

1. I am in or prepared to travel to ((highlight or delete as applicable):

  • Bristol
  • Leeds
  • London
  • Nottingham (Thu 13th June only)
  • Edinburgh (w/c 17th June only)
  • Newcastle

2. I could be available at the following dates and times (highlight or delete as applicable):

  • Tues 28th May 11am 1pm 3pm 5pm
  • Weds 29th May 11am 1pm 3pm 5pm
  • Thurs 30th May 11am 1pm 3pm 5pm
  • Fri 31st May 11am 1pm 3pm 5pm
  • Thurs 13th June (Notts only) 11am 1pm 3pm 5pm
  • Fri 14th June 11am 1pm 3pm 5pm
  • Tuesday 18th June (Edinburgh only) 11am 1pm 3pm 5pm
  • Wednesday 19th June (Edinburgh only) 11am 1pm 3pm 5pm

3. Which of the following best describes your relationship with/attitude to cask ale? (highlight or delete as applicable):

  • “It’s a major part of the business in the pub I work in – it’s something we’re known for and I’m proud of how we keep and serve it.”
  • “We stock cask, but it’s not really a core part of our core business and I’m not particularly engaged with it.”
  • “The place I work doesn’t really do cask ale and I’m not really bothered about it.”

4. I am (highlight or delete as applicable):

  • A freehold licensee
  • A leased/tenanted licensee
  • A pub manager
  • A shift manager
  • A member of bar staff

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The Campaign for Good Brown Beer

Is the boom in craft brewing actually narrowing the choice of different beer styles we have?

Last week I was invited to Germany to attend the magnificent Bar Convent Berlin, a huge trade show featuring a mind-boggling array of drinks producers across the board and from across the world, plus talks, seminars and debates. 

Yes, they have hipsters in Germany too. But this was an amazing trade show. 

This year there was a special focus on the UK, and I was asked if I’d run a tutored tasting with Sylvia Kopp, European Ambassador for the American Brewers’ Association, the idea being that we’d pick a variety of beer styles that were British in origin, and do side-by-side presentations of British and American beers in that style. It sounded like a lovely idea, so I readily agreed. 

Sylvia checked with the American brewers at the show and came up with an attractive-looking list of styles:

  • Brown ale
  • Scotch ale
  • IPA
  • Stout

As a list, it has that warm glow of classic British beer about it. As a flight of beers, it felt comforting and autumnal, the corner pub on a rainy Tuesday night with a small fire in the grate and George Orwell sitting in the corner with a newspaper. 

And maybe, to young British brewers, that’s the problem with it. 

Stout was straightforward enough, although we both ended up with flavoured styles rather than straightforward ones. IPA was of course very easy to find. But we wanted to put up a British style against an American style IPA, and finding a British IPA that didn’t have a heavy American hop influence was a much more difficult task.* I could think of two that were widely known, but neither of them was available in Germany. 

The other categories were much more difficult. For brown ale, I had the choice of Newcastle Brown, which is insipid, and Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown Ale. I don’t promote Samuel Smith’s beers, for ethical reasons. That left me with… nothing. 

As for Scotch ale? I was offered Belhaven Scottish Ale. I mean, yeah, but… wasn’t there anything else in that style? No.

I’ve just searched for Scotch Ale on Beers of Europe. They stock one from Belgium, three from the US and just one from the UK. Brown ale is a more complicated category to define, but again, they stock quite a lot of Belgian brown ales (not quite the same thing) several American examples based on the British style and no British ones. Beer Hawk currently lists no Scotch ales at all, several American brown ales, and a couple of British-brewed ‘American-style’ brown ales, but no English-style examples. It’s a similar story across various other retailers. 

I’m not saying no British brewers are brewing decent brown ales or Scotch ales any more. But I am saying these traditional styles are much harder to find than they used to be, and pretty much invisible compared to American-hopped IPA and pale ale, black IPA, Berlinerweiss, craft lager (or pale ale fraudulently labelled as lager), and experimental beers involving fruit. The same goes for barley wine, mild, old ale, and winter warmers. Again, Beers of Europe now lists an Austrian, a Belgian, a Norwegian and three American ‘English-style barley wines’ but no British examples. 

Eventually, Sylvia and I had change the styles we presented. On my side, I had a golden ale, an American-style British IPA, a chocolate stout and Fuller’s Vintage Ale. All great beers, but not the showcase of British styles we’d been hoping for.

This is not a post-Brexit ‘British beer for British people’ rant. I welcome the new styles and the innovations and adore the character of American hops. But as we face more beer choice than we’ve ever had before, it frustrates me that the British disease of ‘what we do is always crap, if its from abroad it must be better’ means that we’re not innovating with styles developed here. You can’t just argue that it’s because those styles are boring or lack character, because as the above examples show, brewers in other countries, particularly the States, find them interesting and inspirational. 

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to have lunch with Charles Finkel, founder of the Pike Brewery in Seattle and one of the original catalysts of what has now become the global craft beer movement. (If you don’t already know him, read this short biography, it’s incredible.) As we sat down in his brewpub and he asked me what I’d like to drink, the core range gave me a rush of nostalgia for the time I first started writing about beer. It consists of a golden ale, an amber ale, a couple of IPAs, a Scotch ale, a Belgian-stye Tripel, and a stout. There’s no fruit, no blurring of boundaries, no attempts to reinvent anything. And yet it’s an exciting list that has something for everyone, a breadth of style and flavour it would take an awfully long time to get bored of. 

British beer styles were the direct inspiration for the American craft beer revolution. I find it sad that with nearly 2000 brewers in Britain now, there seems to be little enthusiasm for taking these native styles on and doing something interesting with them.

Another point: most of the beer styles in Sylvia’s original list are more reliant on malt for their character than hops. At a time when three new brewers a week open their doors, phone up hop merchants such as Charles Faram and then grumble darkly about not being able to get hold of any Citra or Galaxy hops because the entire supply was spoken for as soon as it was harvested last year (and no, not just by the macros, but also by the 150 new breweries that opened last year, and the year before that) and at a time when British brewers buy more US hops than British hops, and the collapse of the pound means those hops just got a lot more expensive even if you’re lucky enough to find any, it beggars belief that brewers aren’t exploring these older, maltier styles and applying their undoubted creativity to making them relevant again. 

Before last week, the only time I’d visited Berlin was in 2004. Back then, Berlinerweisse was regarded as little more than a joke beer, sold from street kiosks and sweetened with a range of fruit syrups. It’s now, I would argue, the most hip beer style on the global craft brewing scene. So why not mild next? Why not Scotch ale or barley wine?

There are, of course, exceptions. Tonight I’m doing an event at the Harp Pub in Covent Garden with Five Points Brewing, who are launching… a new brown ale! I haven’t tasted it yet. Those who have say it’s great, and that the traditional cask version is even better than the keg. Five Points is also the last brewery I can remember launching a new barley wine. They seem to be doing pretty well out of it. I imagine other brewers could too.

*Before anyone jumps in, yes, I know nineteenth century IPAs were often brewed with US hops. I’ve seen some of the recipes. But they weren’t defined by the fresh, zingy character of those hops like modern IPAs. 

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Why don’t you switch off your smartphone and go out and do something less boring instead?

… such as coming to one of my summer festival events?

This weekend it’s the Stoke Newington Literary Festival. Set up by my wife Liz in 2010, it’s now become recognised as one of the coolest small festivals in the UK, thanks to a combination of it being a nice place with some lovely venues to sit and listen and talk about books, having an excellent audience, amazing volunteers, and Liz’s boundless enthusiasm and extraordinary knack for programming events. Even if I had nothing to do with it you should still come if you can, for legendary novelists, celebrations of Punk’s 40th birthday, a little bit of politics, some food, drink and superb comedy.

But I also happen to be doing a couple of events too.

Amended from the original after I first posted it. Thanks, Tom Stainer!

On Saturday at 6pm I’ll be welcoming four of London’s best breweries to chat beer in Stoke Newington Town Hall. Is London’s brewery boom showing the first signs of slowing down? Are we getting bored of Citra hops yet? Is our love affair with craft beer turning sour? Or are we set for an ever-expanding beery universe after London brewing’s 2010 Big Bang? Such questions can only be answered with a beer in hand, so Redemption (who have sponsored Stokey Litfest since its inception) London Brewing Co (who are helping us run the festival bars this year) 40FT (who are possibly the closest brewery now the Stoke Newington) and Brewed by Numbers (who are currently making my favourite London beers) will each be bringing one of their beers along for you to taste while they share their thoughts. We did a similar event at Stokey Litfest three years ago. It sold out, and people are still talking about it. Tickets for London’s Brewing are £5 and available here, and include four beer samples. It’s the best deal you’ll get on London craft beer anywhere this weekend.

The festival bars will feature loads of great beers and ciders, and not o be missed is the marquee outside the town hall, sponsored by our lead beer partner Budvar. The Czech brewery will be bringing their new krausened beer as well as the original Budvar, and the tent will feature performances by bands, poets and musicians across the weekend including the phenomenal Andy Diagram (ex-James) doing things with a trumpet that will blow your mind – here he was at the festival two years ago:

and the legendary Edward Tudor Pole out of Crystal Maze and Tenpole Tudor (suit of armour probably not included this time).

If I can tear myself away from that, I’m doing a second event on Sunday. My friend and fellow N16 author Travis Elborough has written a fine book about the role of parks in shaping, enhancing and defining our communities, and we thought pubs – the other great people’s institution – had a lot in common with that, and I have a new book on pubs coming out in the summer. The affable and engaging Mark Mason’s new book looks at Britain by postcode, and how they shape the way we think of an area. The three of us had a chat on stage at the festival three years ago and everyone wanted it to carry on in the beer tent afterwards, so we’re all back with our new books this year to pick up where we left off. According to the official programme, we’re Stokey’s literary boy band. Terrifying. Tickets for Pubs, Parks and Postcodes are £4 and are available here.

Later in June, I’m ridiculously excited to be making my gigging venue at the Glastonbury Festival. At 3pm on the Friday, I’ll be talking apples and tors, orchards and Celtic myth, and about how ridiculously excited I am to get to see Phillip Glass’s Heroes Symphony live. If you’re lucky enough to have got s ticket to Glasto this year, try to find me at the Free University of Glastonbury Stage.

A couple of days after that I’m getting on a plane to South Africa! Beer Boot Camp is a one day conference with a difference – it goes on tour! I’ll be chatting beer ingredients and my forthcoming book to brewers and beer enthusiasts in Jo’burg in the 2nd and Cape Town on the 9th. More information and tickets here.

And finally for now, I’ll be at the Green Man Festival from 18th to 21st August. My beer and music matching at Green Man has turned into a regular gig and one of my favourite events of the year. With 100 beers and ciders in the beer tent and a wonderfully eclectic line-up across the stages, I’ll be kicking off Green Man 2016 at noon on Friday by pairing the beers and performers of the festival. we had over a thousand people packed into the literary tent last year for this so if you are going to Green Man, get there early to get a seat!

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Why I haven’t been blogging much

A cautionary tale, with a happy ending. 

About two years ago I started getting shooting pains down my left leg. I went to the doctor about it and they said it was sciatica. Although the pain was in my leg, it was actually a result of nerves in my spine being irritated. “It’ll go away eventually,” said the doctor. “If it gets too bad, just take some painkillers. Exercise will help, as would losing a bit of weight.”

Eventually the pain did go away, but every now and then it would return. In January 2015 it came back and didn’t go away.

One morning at the end of January, I was in a hotel near Heathrow airport where I was attending a brewer’s brand conference and workshop. I woke in quite extraordinary pain, the worst I’ve ever felt. I went from thinking “This is embarrassing. I hope there’s no one next door who can hear me screaming,” to thinking, “Actually, I hope there IS someone next door who can hear me screaming, and they call for help.” I realised I was in quite a lot of trouble and decided to phone someone. My phone was six inches away from my grasp on the bedside table. It too me half an hour to reach it.

Very soon after I did, I was in the back of an ambulance greedily sucking down most of a canister of gas and air. When I got to the hospital they gave me liquid morphine. It took the edge off a bit, but I still couldn’t move without yelling.

Two days later I was discharged with a pile of drugs including Tramadol and Diazepam. I spent the next three weeks feeling fucking wonderful in a kind of dissociated way.

It turned out I had two slipped discs at the base of my spine that were pushing against my spinal cord. I had to have an injection of steroids into my spinal column to sort it out. I’m fine now, but the pain is still there as suggestion, reminding me of my promise to lose weight, improve my posture, take regular exercise and build my core strength so it never comes back properly again.

I haven’t yet kept that promise, mainly because of what I did when I was fucked and bombed on very strong drugs.

About a week after I stopped taking the drugs, the latest issue of the Publican’s Morning Advertiser came through the door. As soon as I saw it I thought, “Shit! I was supposed to write my column for this week!” I briefly wondered why they hadn’t chased me for it, before turning to the page where it usually runs to see what they’d done instead.

There was my column.

I had written and submitted it as usual, but had absolutely no memory of doing so. Technically it was a bit sloppy, but it was uncharacteristically warm and affectionate.

I later discovered that I’d written four different features while I was high. Four that I’ve been able to find, anyway.

I had also done something else that was really, really stupid.

My last narrative book, Shakespeare’s Local, was very successful when it launched. It was picked up by BBC Radio 4 as their Book of the Week and read out by Tony Robinson, who made it much funnier than my writing is, and the book spent the week before Christmas sitting comfortably in Amazon’s Top 100, outselling Hunger Games books and Downton Abbey tie-ins. It was easily the most successful book launch I’ve had to date. And it almost killed my book publishing career.

The issue was, it represented a transition point from my being a beer writer to being a mainstream, general non-fiction author. The publisher who had bought my first four books – and specifically, the man who had edited the last two – felt quite understandably that my next book should push me right into the bestseller lists, that I should be, if not the new Bill Bryson, then perhaps the next Stuart Maconie or Simon Garfield. I was very happy to agree.

The problem was coming up with an idea for a book that fit the bill.

I spent the next two years submitting ideas that were rejected. The usual response was along the lines of “Well, I’d read it like a shot, but I’m not sure it’s going to sell beyond your current audience.”

Mainstream publishing is changing and getting more difficult. There’s no longer room for ‘the midlist’ – books like mine that sell OK and cover their costs but don’t build and break out. My confidence began to plummet, until we reached the break-up conversation that goes along the lines of, “If you’d like to move on and see other people, that’s OK with me.”

I started pitching ideas to other people. I didn’t have a clear strategy, I just knew I wanted to start work on another book. If writing books is what you do – and for me, everything else is filler that keeps me busy and pays the mortgage between books – whenever you finish one you’re effectively unemployed until you sign a deal for the next one.

Did I want to carry on trying to crack a different, broader market? Or did I want to go back to writing about beer and pubs? Yes.

So I was having various different conversations with various different publishers about various different ideas when my back went and I got taken to hospital.

Then, during a particularly rotten, bleak and desolate comedown from the drugs that was every bit as miserable as the high was euphoric, I realised that I’d signed three different contracts, with three different publishers, to deliver three different books – all within the same timescale.

This was a really fucking stupid thing to do.

It normally takes me two to three years to write and research a book. Now, I had to write and research three in little over a year. And I had to break it to each publisher that while I was very happy about our new relationship, I was also seeing someone else.

This did not make for the kind of stress-free time I needed if I wanted to get happier and healthier. And so I haven’t. But now, fourteen months later, I’ve just finished writing the second of the three books, and I’ve managed to delay the third one, which I’ve started writing up today. I’ve mentioned them all at various times here and there, but with the first two now out of the way and with their release dates confirmed, here’s what’s coming up.

The Pub: A Cultural Institution
Publication Date: 18th August 2016

For all I’ve written about pubs, I’ve never really done pub reviews. This book is one of those coffee table, picture-led affairs with lots of gorgeous photography of old inns, pubs signs and real ale casks. But I also wanted it to be much more than that.

The book contains reviews of 300 pubs across the UK. 250 of these are short, 80-word listings, but fifty of them are double-page spreads featuring longer essays. Rather than just say what beers are on or what the decor is like (information which would quickly go out of date and is better sourced from websites) I’ve tried to review each of these pubs on its atmosphere, which is, after all, the main reason we choose one pub over another.

It’s much harder to do than reviewing the physical space or offering, and I don’t quite succeed with every one of the fifty. But I’ve also tried to make each one a story about the many different reasons why pubs are so special: a couple focus on legendary publicans, some focus on the relationship between the pub and its environment, one celebrates the ritual of that coming-of-age moment many of us experienced in our first pub, another talks about the institution of the pub juke box. One is about a marriage proposal, while another sees a pub help sort out an old man who has been made temporarily homeless.

I’m now going through the inevitable phase of “Sounds good! Did you write about the Three Old Codgers in Little Frumpington? Whaaaaat? You’ve never been to the Codgers? You haven’t lived, mate.” If you know the best pub ever, it’s probably not in here. But I promise you the 300 featured pubs are very good indeed.

Available for pre-order on Amazon – click the pic above for a link.

The Apple Orchard
Publication Date: 29th September 2016

When I wrote World’s Best Cider with Bill Bradshaw, I spent a lot of time in orchards. I was moved by these beautiful places, enraptured by the customs and traditions around apple growing, and the people who kept them alive. I made loads of quite lyrical notes and observations, most of which never made it into the cider book because it wasn’t that kind of book. So I decided I wanted to revisit the subject.

The result is a book that follows the apple year, from blossom time in spring through to wassail in January. It explores the cultural meaning of the apple as well as its practical value. Was the apple the Forbidden Fruit in the Garden of Eden? Could it have been? Does it matter? If it wasn’t, why do we think it was? Exploring questions like these was like pulling a loose thread that led me all over the place. There are ancient Pagan festivals, an appreciation of soil, discussions about GM, and quite a bit of morris dancing. It turned into a sort of affectionate tour of British life and customs, as well as an exploration of our relationship with food and where it comes from. It’s possibly the best piece of writing I’ve done to date. It has nothing to do with beer, although quite a bit of cider is drunk.

I’m enormously chuffed that Penguin will be publishing The Apple Orchard under their ‘Particular Books’ imprint. We haven’t quite sorted the cover yet, but it is already listed on Amazon and available for pre-order here.

What Are You Drinking?
Publication Date: TBC Spring 2017

I’ve already written quite a bit about my book on hops, barley, yeast and water because it’s being published by Unbound, who use crowdfunding to cover the cost of publication, so I’ve had to flog the idea quite hard to potential subscribers.

The best thing about this is that by having to tell people about the book before I’d really done very much work on it, the process of funding changed the shape and scope of the book. Brewers, maltsters and hop growers have been in touch suggesting I visit them to learn more about what they do, and something that started life as quite a theoretical idea has become much more hands-on. I’ve picked hops in Kent, sat on a combine harvester as it reaps Maris Otter barley, watched speciality malts being made in Bamberg, seen hops being picked in farms in the Yakima Valley that are bigger than the entire British hop crop, visited the laboratory in Copenhagen where single strain brewing yeasts were first isolated and cultivated, drunk Burton well water straight from the ground and delivered fresh, green Galaxy hops to a brewery in Australia and dry-hopped a beer with them. It’s been utterly amazing, and if I can only do justice to the incredible source material I’ve gathered, the book will be worth the wait.

We reached our crowdfunding target back in October, but you can still become a subscriber if you want. Subscribers get their name in the back of the book, get access to exclusive updates about how the book research and writing process is coming along, and will also get their copies a month or so before publication. If you’re interested, here’s the link.

Some people have been uncomfortable with the idea of a crowdfunded book. If you don’t like the idea that’s fine, because on publication the book will receive the same distribution as any book from a traditional publisher and you can buy it on Amazon or any good book shop.

I will be blogging more frequently again now, having got the first two books out of the way. Sorry the last little while on here has mainly been me trying to flog stuff. I’ll be doing some actual beer blogging again very soon.

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Beer Marketing Awards: New Awards Date, Deadline for Entries Extended

The second annual Beer Marketing Awards have been moved from 14th April, and will now take place in 8th September at the Boiler House, the Old Truman Brewery, Brick Lane, London E1.

The postponement follows some uncertainty about availability of the venue. Everyone who attended the first event in 2015 thought it was a perfect venue for such an event, but for that reason it’s a very popular space, so we decided to do it later and do it as well as we possibly can.

This means that the deadline for entries – which was originally this week – has now been extended until 31st March. Entries have been coming in thick and fast, but if you were running out of time for yours, now you have time to give it an extra polish.

The idea behind the awards is to celebrate the promotion of beer across all channels. In today’s communications landscape, effective marketing is no longer about who has the biggest budget – the strength of an idea can compete across various channels. Last year we had global, regional and microbrewers going head-to-head in some categories, and it was by no means assured that those with the biggest budget and external agencies won out.

After feedback last year, we have also introduced staggered entry fees based on the size of the brewery (or if you’re an agency, the size of the brewery you work for), to make it mort affordable for small brewers to enter.

More details and entry forms are available at

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If you think you're a pub and… (with apologies to Rudyard Kipling)

If you think you’re a pub and you try to ‘up-sell’ someone by forcing your staff to ask
‘Would you like some crisps or nuts with that?’ every time someone orders a
If you think you are solving the problem of bar staff
motivation and retention by ‘empowering’ your zero hours, minimum wage, untrained staff simply by referring to them as ‘colleagues,’
If you advertise free WiFi but ‘free’ turns out to mean
‘free for 20 minutes and then you pay,’
If you pour a pint for a customer that foams over the sides
of the glass so vigorously that you have to wash your hands after pouring it,
but you expect your customer to pick up the soaking glass from its puddle,
knowing their hands will get wet and sticky, but not giving a shit about that,
If you advertise ‘craft beers’ and offer Peroni or Amstel to
those who ask for them,
If you refer to yourself as a ‘Beer House’[1],
‘bar and kitchen’, ‘cellar and eatery’, ‘Ale dispensary and hob’ or any other
similar term because you think you’re better than a mere pub,
If you charge more than £5 for a pint of beer without being able to tell the customer why
it costs that much,
If you think the brand
is more important than the guv’nor,
If you have keypads on the doors to the toilets because
you’re so paranoid about walk-ins using the loos without buying a drink that
you’re prepared to humiliate your customers by making them come to the bar to
ask for the code,
And if, the code secured, your customer opens the door to
the bogs and reels back physically from the ammonia stench of stale urine
burning their nostrils from urinals that haven’t been cleaned for days,
Then you don’t have the first clue about what matters to the earth nor anything in it , and – which is more – you ain’t no pub, my son!

[1] For example, in a train station such
as London Waterloo or Paddington.