Category: Uncategorised

| Books, Food, Pie Fidelity, Uncategorised

PIE FIDELITY: In Defence of British Food

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

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

“What else ya got?”

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

Anthony Bourdain (1956 – 2018)


I was devastated when Bourdain died.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the blurb:

Yes, it’s good. It’s great.

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

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

#Gerritdahnyer

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The power of talking

Anxiety seems to be an increasing issue in the beer world. Hell, never mind that – in life generally. If you’re hurting, please tell someone…

After giving this a lot of thought, I’ve decided I’d like to tell you about Andy.

I just said goodbye to Andy. I’ll probably never see him again. This is a bit of a wrench: for the past seven years, he has been my counsellor, my therapist. As I slowly grew to trust him, he also became my friend, and in many ways, my surrogate father.

Seven and a half years ago, my world caved in. I learned things about my family, and about myself, that rocked my very sense of who I was. Feelings of grief, betrayal, shock, guilt, panic, anger and loss queued up to take turns on me. I felt like I was drowning. My wife, Liz, was my lifejacket. She saved me. But I needed pulling out of the water, and Andy did that.

Once a week, I went to talk to him for an hour at a time. He pushed me hard. For a while, it was twice a week. The rest of my diary was structured around the fixed points of these sessions. For the first few years I dreaded them, and came out feeling like like I’d had the mental equivalent of an hour in a boxing ring.

I realised pretty soon that the things that had driven me to see Andy were part of a wider pattern, that for my entire adult life, I’d developed an elaborate coping mechanism to deal with feelings of stress, anxiety, panic and paranoia. This system had worked extremely well for a long time, but was now damaging me. I was a stressed out, unhappy, dysfunctional workaholic who soothed himself by eating and drinking too much. In your forties, this shit starts to catch up with you. I began to develop health problems that would become significantly more serious unless I changed direction.

My relationship with Andy was unequal: I told him absolutely everything about myself, and he gave away very little in return. That’s how it works. I knew we shared things in common around our upbringings, but I never discovered the details. I was scared of mumbo jumbo and psychological claptrap. I felt uncomfortable with how much he wanted me to open up to him.

And boy, it was fucking frustrating. We talked things through and worked things out. I’m a bright bloke, and I could see the workings, see where he was trying to go. I got things intellectually, understood the point, but it made absolutely no difference to how I felt. We had the same conversations over and over again. For fucking years.

And then, gradually, it started to change. I grew to trust Andy. I started to look forward to the sessions. And inside me, very slowly, things started to shift. Every now and again I’d take a step backwards, and we’d have to go through something yet again. But gradually, I came to know myself more, to understand myself. I started to forgive myself, to cut myself some slack.

Andy retires next month: we just had our final session. I was thinking that it was probably time to raise the subject of ending my therapy, and when he announced his retirement, that settled it. In our last few sessions he opened upon a bit more, made it more equal. We even had a few laughs.

The feelings never go away. Therapy can’t ‘cure’ you or ‘fix’ you. Andy doesn’t talk in terms of mental illness or mental health – in his words, I wasn’t ill, but I was disturbed, and now I’m less disturbed. Now, I can spot when feelings or behaviours are emerging and go, “Oh, I’m doing that again,” and I can shut it down – no, that’s not right – I can allow it to be, allow it to express itself, give it space and be comfortable with it, and move on without it becoming a disturbance. I can cope with things that used to get the better of me, and now no longer do.

I’m sharing this with a certain degree of trepidation. But I’m sharing it because I know I’m not alone. Anxiety, self-doubt and depression can be killers. Some people in the beer scene  have started to talk more openly about mental health on social media and there have been one or two powerful and moving longer pieces written. Despite its progressiveness (in places) the beer scene is still incredibly macho. We might often feel like we have to put a mask on and go out with our bros and buddies and smash some awesome beers and have a frikkin awesome time, when inside we might be hurting or drowning or feel ourselves disappearing. Having been there, I can tell when people are suffering – sometimes they even admit to it – and it’s becoming increasingly widespread.

So I’m sharing this for two reasons.

Firstly, I simply want to say to people who may be hurting that I’ve been there too. Many of us have.

Secondly, I want to say that if you’re drowning or falling or disappearing (like I was) or if you’re throwing up with nerves before heading out to a beer event, if you’re getting wankered to try and shut down nervousness or anxiety (like others I’ve spoken to) or if you’re worried that everyone else is having an awesome time and you’re alone in pinning on a mask and dreading being found out – please, talk about it. Tell someone. Go see someone. I’ve been paying Andy a good chunk of my income for the past seven years, but it was worth every penny. I saw him privately, but you can get referred to a therapist via the NHS. There’s no need to suffer in silence. And with enough talking, it really does get better.

I imagine I might get a bit of shit for posting this, but if it helps just one person, it’s worth it. And thanks to Andy, I’m much better at dealing with the shit than I used to be.

| Beer, Craft Beer, Dark Star, Uncategorised

Some Important Musings on the Nature of Craft Beer

Seriously, these Musings are Very IMPORTANT. 

A picture of a beer that is a craft beer, yesterday.

 

One of the more curious comments I’ve seen repeated by various people this week in the wake of Dark Star being bought by Fuller’s is the idea that Dark Star is/was not a craft brewer because it is mainly known for producing cask ale. The idea that cask ale is not and can not be craft beer is an intriguing one, and one that I don’t fully understand. So if you subscribe to this point of view, I wonder if you can help me understand it by answering the following questions? Thanks!

  1. 1. If a small, independent brewery produces beer across a variety of formats, what percentage of cask ale is it allowed to produce before it no longer counts as a craft brewery?

2. If that brewery produces both keg and cask beers, are its keg beers craft and its cask beers not craft?

3. Where do cans fit into this?

4. Or bottles?

  1. 5. If, say, Magic Rock brews a beer called High Wire and puts some of it into cask and some if it into keg, is the cask stuff not craft and the keg stuff craft?

6. If the cask High Wire is not craft but the keg High Wire is craft, how does that work? Does High Wire start off as a craft beer in the brewhouse, and when the cask stuff gets packaged into the cask it stops being craft? Or is it the other way round: High Wire starts off not being craft, but when the keg stuff gets packaged into kegs, that’s when it becomes craft?

7. What is it about the cask process/format that stops it from being craft? Is it the live yeast that requires more skill, care and attention to look after? Is it the container itself, which is more traditional than a pressurised keg? Is it the shape of the cask? Or is it the sound of the word ‘cask’, which doesn’t sound craft enough?

8. If Greene King were to produce a 5.5% west coast-style pale ale using acidulated, Golden Promise, Munich, Vienna malts and Cascade, Centennial, Chinook, Citra, Columbus and Magnum hops which gave it mango, lychee and lip-smacking grapefruit flavours that harmonised against a smoothly composed malt base, which develops into a crisply bitter finish, and they called it Why Hire, would that be craft or not? If not, would it help if they packaged some of it in key kegs?

  1. 9. If you buy a can of your favourite craft beer on Monday and the brewery gets bought by a corporate brewer on Tuesday, is the can of beer in your fridge still craft or not?

10. If it’s not, when does it stop being craft? When the deal was done? When you found out about the deal? If the deal was done last Friday, before you bought it on Monday, but it wasn’t announced until Tuesday, was your can of beer still craft when you bought it or not? Are you allowed to revise its status retrospectively? If you are, what authority or qualifications do you need to be able to make that call?

I look forward to reading your answers!

 

A picture of a beer that is not a craft beer, yesterday.

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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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When Michael met Stef and Martin

Trawling through old notebooks can yield unexpected treasures.

The new beer book I’m currently working on was initially inspired by a few experiences that I’d never properly written up and used.

Sometimes I’ll visit a brewery or go to an event and I’m inspired by it, taking pages of notes, and I’ll decide to write them up for one of my columns. A typical column is 700-800 words long, and while the column itself might be good, it only skates across the surface of the notes and observations I’ve made.

When I decided to write a book about hops, it was because I knew I had unused material that I’d gathered on a visit to the National Hop Collection in Kent, a jaunt to Slovenia to see the hop farms there, and a hazy account of Chmelfest, the hop blessing festival in the town of Zatec in the Czech Republic, home of the revered Saaz hop. I’d written up the National Hop Collection and Slovenia for short Publican’s Morning Advertiser columns, but I’d never known quite what to do with the Chmelfest notes. That’s where the idea for this book was born. About thirty seconds after deciding to use these three stories as the basis for a book about hops, I thought, ‘Why just hops?’ And What Are You Drinking? was born.

So now I’m deep into pulling the book together, writing up notes from trips over the last year and digging into my pile of old notebooks to find bits from over the last few years that also belong in this book.

I went to Chmelfest back in 2007, just as I was starting work on the first Cask Report and while I was trying to plan the sea voyage that would become my third book, Hops and Glory. So I dug into my pile of notebooks trying to find the one I’d been using in early 2007.

It turned out to be the same one I’d been using in late 2006 – number 6 in the stash of anally numbered notebooks I began when I first started travelling to write about beer. Chmelfest is about two thirds of the way through, and the notes are more intact and coherent than I have any right to expect. But near the front of the book, undated, is a short set of notes – just two pages – about a meeting between Michael Jackson and Stefano Cossi and Martin Dickie, who were then two young brewers at a new brewery called Thornbridge.

I remember this meeting taking place at the legendary White Horse pub in West London. I can’t remember why I was there, why I’d been invited, but the two brewers were sitting against the wall with Michael facing them across a table. I was sitting two seats down, watching, not daring to join in.

I remember being inspired by Michael that night, and later feeling lucky that I was there. A year on from this meeting Michael would be dead and Martin would have left Thornbridge to start up BrewDog. Martin has spoken often about what an inspiration the meeting was to him. It’s become part of BrewDog folklore, a key event in the origin story, which makes me feel weird that I’d been there as a silent observer.

The occasion was the launch of a new beer called Kipling. Michael thought it was interesting because it used a new hop called Nelson Sauvin which came from New Zealand, and no one had brewed in Britain using New Zealand hops before. (In my notes I wrote ‘Nelson Sauverne’, which is how it sounded when Martin said it.) Martin and Stef had encountered a sample of these hops and immediately ordered some in. They wanted to make a beer that celebrated their flavour, because they were already, according to my notes, ‘bringing in obscure US hops’ for beers like Jaipur.

In a demonstration of my stunning beer writing skills at the time, my tasting notes stretch to ‘grapefruit in the finished beer.’ I also wrote down ‘Fills in the gaps that are left by the flavour spikes in spicy, deep-fried spring rolls.’ I don’t know if I wrote this because that’s what the beer was paired with because I didn’t write any more detail about what we were eating and drinking. I may have been quoting someone. (Does anyone really think spring rolls have flavour spikes?)

I’ll spare you my clumsy notes about Thornbridge and my observations about its two young, moody brewers. The reason for sharing the reminiscence is the notes I made about Michael Jackson. I was paying more attention to him during the interview than I was to the two brewers.

I’m tempted to tidy up my notes and write them better. It’s a rubbish piece of writing, embarrassing in parts, but I wanted to share the sentiments it contains, so here it is quoted as I wrote it, unvarnished by later experience or hindsight:

Michael going on – interesting enough stories. Meeting some of these people is a bit special. He’s created this thing, still sees it w the novelty he genuinely discovered for the first time.

Gentle, warming method of questioning that draws the best out of his subject – “Why this beer?” “What did you think of the hop the first time you tasted it?”

It doesn’t seem like much, written up. But this was an absolute inspiration to a fledgling beer writer. The obvious passion, undimmed after thirty-odd years. And the focus on the people, how they felt, making it about them and getting the best from them. I remember sitting there thinking, “THIS is how you do it.”

I still think that. My own notes are better now.

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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 http://beermarketingawards.co.uk/.

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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
pint,
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.