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Bruce Dickinson: lead singer of Iron Maiden, pilot, and now brewer – guess which bit I interviewed him about?

I’ve just been on tour with Iron Maiden.

When I say ‘tour’ I mean ‘brewery tour’, and when I say ‘Iron Maiden’ I mean the lead singer, Bruce Dickinson.

But still.

When I was at school in South Yorkshire in the early eighties, music was tribal. As my generation reached musical awareness at roughly the same time as puberty it was simple: you were either a mod or a rocker. A fishtail parker with targets and badges or a denim jacket with sewn on patches.

I was a Mod – or at least, I imagined I was. I graffitied my desk in ‘O’ Level German with the logos of The Jam and The Specials. The following week my slogans had been defaced and shouted down by Motörhead and Black Sabbath logos. This graffiti war escalated until it covered the entire desk. At one stage I lost the moral high ground by defacing the inscription “Stairway to Heaven” with the words “are shit” underneath. It was years before I learned it was the title of a somewhat famous song and not the name of a band.

To this day I have never willingly listened to anything ‘heavy’, even though metal legends Saxon were from Barnsley and lead singer Biff Byford’s daughter was in the year below me at school. The first album I ever bought was this one:

Madness were associated with the Mod movement because of their early involvement with the 2-Tone label. And weirdly, and rather wonderfully, I’m going to be helping them launch their own beer next week.

But weeks before that, Stockport brewer Robinson’s gave me the exclusive beer trade interview with their latest collaborator, on the project that has turned very quickly into the most successful beer launch they’ve ever had:

A few weeks before the official launch of Trooper, I’m invited to Maiden’s press office. It’s a Friday afternoon and Dickinson, an affable and absurdly fit and healthy-looking bloke in his early fifties, is fussing about getting some bottles of Trooper cold enough for us to try. Every ten minutes he interrupts his flow to ask his friend and publicist, Iain Macauley, to check the fridge.

Like Madness, Maiden today are no eighties nostalgia circuit band: they’re selling more records than ever, and writing new material for every tour. It surprises me in my pre-interview research to discover an ethic of discipline and professionalism that would be impressive in any industry, let alone the supposedly sex and drugs-fuelled world of hard rock. And the polymath Dickinson takes this perfectionist approach with everything he turns his hand to.

“That’s something that was drummed into me by my Dad,” he says, after deciding his beer is not yet the perfect temperature and must be returned to the fridge. “He taught me that it doesn’t matter what you do – if you’re a road sweeper, be a good road sweeper. Take pride in who you are and what you are, whatever you are. That’s a good starting point. If you’re just in it to make a fast buck, you demean yourself at the same time as being fairly scornful of the rest of the human race.”

When Dickinson took up sword fencing, he ended up representing Great Britain in the sport. After qualifying as a pilot, he not only flies the band’s jet while on tour; he pilots commercial flights in his down time. And when he decided to brew a beer, he was very particular about the type of beer it had to be.

“I live in Chiswick, 600 yards from the Fuller’s brewery, and I’m an ESB drinker,” he says. “It’s a lovely beer, but you can only have a couple of pints. On the other hand, 3.5% beers don’t cut the mustard for me. I wanted a beer that’s full-flavoured and punches above its alcoholic weight.”

To test how serious Dickinson was, Robinsons put him through his paces with a blind taste test – “The first time I’ve had to audition in twenty years!” as Dickson puts it.

“We wanted to work with someone who was genuinely passionate about beer,” says Robinson’s head brewer Martyn Weeks. “So we set up this tasting, including some of his favourites. Out of ten beers he was actually able to name six of them, including the ones he said were his favourites, and he got them all right! He really took his time to work out a recipe he liked. He spent ages in the hop room picking out his favourite hops. The result is a genuine collaboration. Bruce likes his southern English, full-flavoured beers, and Trooper has turned out unlike any other beer we brew.”

Dickinson is also delighted with the result. “It punches above its weight in terms of flavour but sits just the right side of brain damage,” he says, “Everyone can have a good session and we can all go away friends.”

This easygoing sessionability has proved surprisingly subtle for commentators who were expecting more of a punch after being by charged by a demented zombie on the pump clip. It may lead to accusations of blandness from some. But the whole point of this beer is that it is a genuine passion rather than a gimmick constructed by marketers aimed at a specific group of fans. I mean, if it were that, wouldn’t you expect a metal band to maybe brew a lager instead, like Lemmy did?

“I don’t drink mainstream standard lager,” says Dickinson. “If I was thirsty in a pub with no real ale I’d rather have a lime and soda. But anyway, we haven’t positioned Trooper as a beer from a metal band – it’s a brand of beer brewed by Robinsons that we’ve developed with them. They’ve had six generations of brewers there, they’ve got some highly respected beers, and what they don’t want is a bunch of rock stars coming up and duffing up their reputation, because they’re still going to be there in another two or three generations.”

So we get it – Dickinson is a real ale fan. As well as Fuller’s ESB, he namechecks Doom Bar and Wadworth 6X as two of his favourite beers (and picked them out successfully in the blind taste test). It would be easy to infer from this choice that Dickinson knows only safe, familiar, established real ale brands – easy, but completely wrong.

“I’m a big Belgian beer fan as well,” he says, “I love the Trappist beers – they have such a great tradition over there. Their beers are unique as well, like our real ales. I just hate bland beers. I can’t stand Budweiser. They’re the Great Satan, and they’re trying to shut down one of my favourite Czech breweries. There’s something I instinctively dislike about Budweiser. I won’t have it in the dressing room when we’re touring.”

Has he had a chance to try American microbrews then?

He hesitates, before replying, “They get it almost right. It’s not bad beer necessarily, but it’s trying too hard. The hops are a bit too much. You have half a pint and you’re not sure about having another one – they don’t seem to have got the thing about sitting down and enjoying a beer. I want to be able have a beer at lunchtime and feel OK in the afternoon.”

So Dickinson’s firm preference for trad English real ale is an informed choice. And it’s a liking that goes hand-in-hand with that symbiotic partner to beer, the Great British Pub.

“I’m quite traditional in terms of pubs – always have been. Even as a kid, I always liked the idea of a country pub in the city, a haven from racket and noise and jukeboxes and people being loud and boorish. A sanctuary where you can just sit and talk.”

Can he still find such sanctuary now he’s a world-famous rock god?

“Absolutely! I mean, it varies geographically. Brazil? Forget it. But I’ve got my local pub in Chiswick and I go there all the time. Sometimes metal fans ask for my autograph but they’re always so polite!”

Like so many bands, Iron Maiden started playing together in pubs. Is the pub still important to bands on the way up?

“My son is in a band now and the scene is exactly the same as it always has been – people want to get together to do some gigs with their mates somewhere. The number of places they can do that has been decimated by endless pressure from the government. It’s fine if you want to have three hundred football hooligans watching telly, but if you have even a folk group in corner, suddenly it’s a massive health and safety issue, you need a special licence and all that nonsense. It’s done a massive amount of damage to the idea of live music in pubs, which is taking ages to recover. And the world is full of NIMBies now. As soon as you open a pub door and there’s a bit of noise coming out – especially if it’s live music – people complain. There needs to be a concerted effort to get live music back in pubs.”

He becomes increasingly passionate as he warms to his subject.

“And then there’s the bouncers and doormen who look like the anti-terrorist squad standing outside pubs. It’s a pub! We should all be friends here. I find it intimidating and loathsome to be honest. Beer and pubs are the centres of out communities and those communities are being decimated. We need to do more to protect this great British institution.”

A few weeks later we meet again at the official launch of Trooper in Robinsons’ brand new brewery visitors’ centre.

Bruce pulls the first pint of Trooper on cask, and I’m surprised to find it much better than the bottle, because the bottle wasn’t bad. The cask is hoppier, with a building dryness that makes it naggingly drinkable, a pint that seems to evaporate from the glass.

Bruce insists on conducting the collected journalists, trade people and liggers around the new brewery himself. He talks confidently and knowledgeably about the history of the brewery and the intricacies of brewing process, without notes.

“He’s done this tour once, with me,” whispers John Robinson, the brewery’s brand manager, as we stand by the copper. “We rushed him round in twenty minutes and look at him – he knows it off by heart.”

Dickinson repeatedly says “we” when referring to Robinsons. By the end of the tour, I’m convinced he’s angling for a permanent job. Forget the adulation of fans across South America: I think he’d rather be mashing in every morning in Stockport.

Would he like to do another brew?

“One of the most enjoyable things about beer is that you can never know it all,” he replies. “There’s always more to learn, always the unknowable to throw a spanner in the works. It’s like flying – it’s not an exact process. I’m fascinated by it. But I want to spend several months with this one before embarking on another. It’s like writing songs – you build up a creative head of steam, and all of a sudden there’s a big splurge. You’ve got to feel inspired by something to do it. My inspiration for Trooper was just to have a beer that gave me the same feeling as when I discovered the beers I love. The moment when you taste it for the first time and it’s, ‘Oh. Oh wow. That’s nice’. I’d like Trooper to be like that, to become an old faithful.”

Back at the end of our interview weeks before, as I pack up my tape recorder and notebook, Dickinson mentions offhand that for his next trick, he’d like to get some decent beer onto planes. I mention one or two practical difficulties with this and he fixes me with a cold stare. And there we are for another twenty minutes, trying to solve the problem.

I’d sort of half-expected a chat about beer with someone going through the motions on the latest example of an increasingly vogueish marketing stunt between brewers and musicians. Instead, despite the protests of my inner Mod, I’ve enjoyed spending time with one of the most passionate beer enthusiasts I’ve ever met.

A much briefer version of this piece appeared originally in this week’s edition of the Publican’s Morning Advertiser.

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World’s Best Cider now available for pre-order on Amazon!

One of my favourite points in the birth of a book is when it first appears on Amazon – it’s the point where it becomes real, out there as opposed to being just part of the author’s world. It’s also when we get to show off about the cover! (Yes, I’d prefer it to be bought for real bookshops that pay their taxes, but Amazon is the place where you can get it most easily.)

World’s Best Cider is a departure from my previous books in that:

a) It’s co-authored – on this occasion with Bill Bradshaw, AKA IAMCIDER in the blogosphere.

b) It has a simultaneous release in both the UK and the USA.

c) It’s more of a typical, illustrated coffee table type book rather than being narrative-led like my previous ones. When Bill and I decided to work together on cider we were looking at doing some kind of illustrated ‘Three Sheets‘-style travel caper. But when we realise that no one had ever given cider the ‘world guide’ treatment that beer got from the likes of Michael Jackson and, more recently, Ben McFarland and Steve Beaumont and Tim Webb, we just had to jump in there and do it. I’m glad we did. We’ve tried to minimise the number of pages that are just bottle shots and tasting notes – although we’ve still given that treatment to around 250 ciders from around the world – and give a flavour of cider based on its history, regional styles, terroir, and most importantly, the characters who make it. So as well as looking great, we hope it’s a book people will enjoy reading cover to cover.

Publication dates are 1st October in the US and 17th October in the UK – just in time for Apple Day!

So anyway, here’s the cover of the UK version:

And here’s the US version:

Which do you prefer?

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Too much confusion on all sides about problem drinking

If I said ‘high strength alcoholic drink’ to you, what would come to mind?

For me, it would be malt whisky – my favourite high strength alcoholic drink. It’s the perfect end to a special evening. If I have too much of it, it’s the thing that gives me a hangover like nothing else, so I keep it at arm’s length, a rare treat – after all, it’s at least 40% ABV. You have to treat stuff like that with respect.

But for legislators on alcohol, a ‘high strength alcoholic drink’ is nowhere near that high – to them, high strength alcohol is 6-7%. In fact, they’d like it defined as anything over 5.6% ABV.

Now, if you’re unfamiliar with the ongoing debate about the impact of alcohol on Britain’s health, this might strike you as bizarre and useless because it classes almost all alcoholic drinks as ‘high strength alcoholic drinks’ – ALL spirits, ALL wines, fortified wines and sherries, liqueurs, and quite a few beers and ciders. To legislate against all of those is tantamount to total prohibition.

But then, those seeking to tackle problem drinking seem to have an entirely different definition of what constitutes ‘high strength alcohol’. Apparently, wines that average 13.5% ABV, spirits that average 40% ABV, sherries that average 17% ABV etc. are not high strength at all. But a beer of 7%ABV is.

I just did a Google picture search using the phrase ‘high strength alcohol’ to illustrate the absurdity of this position. But it seems it’s me that’s being absurd by believing that 7 is a lower number than 13 or 40. Here are the first product images that search returns:

Ah yes, of course. Once again, if we’re talking about alcohol in the context of it being a problem, it must be beer or cider.

I started thinking about this because of a report in The Grocer magazine the other week which said that local authorities are seeking voluntary bans on ‘high strength alcohol’ – a story that was illustrated by the final picture above. After plans to introduce a minimum unit price were dropped, more than twenty towns and cities in England have introduced bans on what they and The Grocer and the rest of the media specifically refer to as ‘high strength alcohol’ in their attempts to reduce problem drinking.

I don’t oppose attempt to curb problem street drinking. And I agree that for the most part (but not exclusively) the drink of choice of the problem street drinker is what we commonly refer to as ‘super strength’ lager or cider. But this laziness with terms – making high strength beer and high strength alcohol synonymous – highlights just how little anyone understands alcohol and how careless we are with legislating it.

If a wine were 7% alcohol, legally it wouldn’t be allowed to be called wine – it would be too weak. But this same alcohol level in beer is considered dangerous. This is why any beer over 7% must already pay extra duty, thanks to a clumsy measure that makes no distinction between a strong, flavourful craft beer that costs nearly a pound per unit of alcohol and something vile like White Lightning that currently retails at an average of 25p per unit.

Measures like this denigrate the overall image of beer and cider and muddy our understanding of relative strengths. If they referred to ‘high strength beer and cider’, then we’d only have the problem of trying to distinguish between the cheap stuff that’s consumed purely for it’s intoxicating effect, and the higher strength stuff that stretches the boundaries of what quality beer can be. But when drinks of 7% are banned while drinks of 13-17% are considered exempt, we have a much bigger problem, not least of which is that hardcore street drinkers will simply move on to cheap sherry, which is more than double the strength of what they’ve just been told they can’t drink.

As the above pictures demonstrate, if ‘high strength alcohol’ is commonly only understood to apply to super strength beer and cider, then as well as being patently absurd it also continues to make beer and cider the scapegoats for problem drinking, when as anyone who has ever been to a pub or known a non-street drinking alcoholic knows, most problem drinkers favour spirits, and wine is playing its part too.

So what can we do?

Well, brewers and cider makers could always stop making the nasty drinks that are causing the problem in the first place.

The manufacturers of super strength beer and cider offer defences such as ‘We should focus on the problem drinker, not the drink’ and ‘They’d just move onto something else’. I agree with both these points – in fact I just used the last one two paragraphs ago. They are true, valid arguments. But that doesn’t excuse the manufacturers of such products.

It’s simple: if anyone who makes revolting crap like this

can look me in the eye with hand on heart and say that their main target audience is NOT the problem drinker looking for the biggest bang for their buck, I’d love to hear it. If you have any evidence that moderate drinkers include these products within their repertoire and drink them responsibly in small measures, I’d love to see it.

Since I left my full-time advertising job, on my occasional dabbles into marketing it’s becoming clear to me that marketers do not see their ‘consumers’ as real people. When you reduce everything to a PowerPoint presentation of pie charts and graphs and brand essence models full of euphemisms and jargon, this insulates you from the fact that your C2DE male 35-54 budget-conscious consumer is an alcoholic who you are helping to kill.

And when manufacturers and retailers look to legal action to overturn voluntary bans on their products so they can carry on helping kill people – well, then you’ve dropped any pretence of being anything other than nasty, amoral bastards with no sense of the social consequences of your actions – a purely sociopathic organisation.

The manufacturers of these products profit from the alcoholism of troubled people. And while they’re doing so, they damage the image of beer and cider generally, and quality high strength beers and ciders in particular.

So problem drinkers would move onto other products? Fine, it would no longer be beer’s problem. And more importantly, we would start to think of what constitutes ‘high strength alcohol’ in a way that has some bearing on reality.

We should focus on the drinker rather than the drink? Absolutely we should. But that does not mean we should happily carry on selling these concoctions to them while we wait patiently for local authorities and government to figure that out.

It’s not just black and white. Except when this entire issue is explored in one of Viz magazine’s truest characters – then it’s black and white.

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Beer and Booze at Stoke Newington Literary Festival 2013

When I’m busy writing a book my wife goes beyond the call of duty by looking after me, talking me down when I’m stressed, bringing me regular cups of tea and feeding me, telling me I’m a good writer when I am, and telling me I’ve written something awful on the far more frequent occasions when I’ve done that instead.

She’s brilliant.

And then, for the last four years, every May/June she effectively goes, “Right, now it’s my turn.”

The first full weekend in June is the Stoke Newington Literary Festival, widely hailed now as one of the best small scale book/reading festivals in the UK. This is her brainchild, and she organises it entirely voluntarily, for no fee and (so far) with no funding. A team of volunteers work their butts off to make it happen and it gets better every year, to the point where last year it looked to the outside world like it was professionally run.

I help out, doing the marketing and overseeing the festival bars. So if you’re anywhere around London between 3rd and 9th June, there’s no better place to come and do a bit of beer and brainfood matching.

The full programme is available to download here, and the main festival website with up to the minute details is at

This year we’ve got our best line-up yet. Headliners include Irvine Welsh being interviewed by John Niven (almost sold out), Thurston Moore and friends playing an intimate local gig (sold out), Turkey’s most successful female author Elif Shafak, bookish comedians John Hegley and Robin Ince, Danny Baker chatting to Danny Kelly, Caitlin Moran talking to Suzanne Moore (sold out) and lots of politics, sci-fi, hot new fiction, music – and food and drink.

But never mind all that – on Friday 7th I’m going to be interviewing the fabulous Cleo Rocos!

The legendary Kenny Everett Show muse is now President of the Tequila Society, has her own tequila brand Aqua Riva, and has written a book called The Power of Positive Drinking. OK so she hardly mentions beer in it. But she does talk about the virtues of many other drinks, and will be telling stories about taking Princes Diana out drinking with Freddie Mercury, so that’s good enough for me.

On Saturday 8th I’m hosting various London brewers and beer writer Will Hawkes at an event called London’s Brewing, which you may be surprised to hear is an overview of the craft beer explosion in the capital over the last three or four years.

Will is the author of Craft Beer London, and we’ll be joined onstage by brewers from Sambrooks, Five Points, Beavertown and Pressure Drop, who will be bringing along their beers for everyone to taste while we muse over how brilliant London’s brewing scene is just now, and where it might go next.

Later that night, I’ll be happy to be a few drinks to the good as I rather trepidatiously become a contestant in Literary Death Match.

This irreverently bookish evening originated in the US, where it is now being made into a TV pilot, and has now gone global. It’s gaining an increasing reputation over here as a refreshing antidote for anyone who’s ever been bored of hearing an author droning on about form their book. Four authors compete for the love and affection of the audience and the judges, who score them on content, delivery, and ‘intangibles’. The two heat winners then go head to head in a a final that’s basically whatever the hosts can think of to stop the authors talking and make them look a little foolish.

If I survive that, I’ll be joining two excellent writers onstage on Sunday 9th to discuss London by Bridge, Tube and Pub.

At the same time as I was writing Shakespeare’s Local (which is released in paperback on 6th June) a neighbouring author, Travis Elborough, was crafting a book about the famous yarn of London Bridge being bought by an American millionaire and shipped to the States.

Often misunderstood and misquoted, the truth is often stranger than any exaggeration. Meanwhile, Mark Mason decided it would be a good idea to visit every station on the London Underground, not by taking the tube between them, but by tracing the lines above ground. 

It gave him a unique psychogeography of the city, and the three of us will be chatting to each other about the different ways London reveals itself, and competing to be the first to use words such as ‘psychogeography’.

When I’m not onstage I’ll probably be helping to run the bars. Every year a range of brewers and drinks makers kindly donate stock that we then sell. With no other arts or commercial funding of any description, this makes the festival financially viable and allows us to keep ticket prices lower than most other literary festivals.

One of our most enduring sponsors has been Budweiser Budvar, and for the first time this year they are sponsoring a marquee just outside Stoke Newington Town Hall, which will be the festival hub and home to various speakers, comedians and musicians throughout the main festival weekend. Budvar will also be available in the bars in our three main venues: the Town Hall itself, the Library Gallery, and Abney Hall.

It will be joined by a special festival beer from Tottenham’s Redemption Brewery, thanks to Andy Moffat, the nicest man in the world, as well as great ciders from Aspall, more beer (and award-wining English fizz) from Chapel Down and Curious Brew, and a smattering of Brew Dog beers. And some other wine and stuff.

We’ve found over the last few years that great writing is best appreciated and new ideas best communicated with a drink in hand. The festival ups the ante on all fronts this year – see you there.

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“Shakespeare’s Pub” – and my other books – now available in America

Good morning America!

Over the years I’ve been asked by many North American readers of this blog if my books are available in the United States. As of now, they all are!

Today the first ever US-bespoke edition of one of my books is published. My last book, Shakespeare’s Local, hits American shelves today as Shakespeare’s Pub: A Barstool History of London As Seen Through the Windows of Its Oldest Pub – The George Inn. (I’ve noticed on my trips to the States that you guys LOVE a long subtitle).

It’s published by St Martin’s Press, the US partner of my UK publisher, Pan Macmillan, and there’s a bit more information about them and the book on their website, along with a really quite lovely gallery of the photos and illustrations used in the book.

The thing about your long subtitles is that it kind of tells you everything you need to know about the book (there’s actually a riff in Shakespeare’s Pub about the Stuart-era fashion for even longer subtitles and their similarity to those movie trailers that give away the whole plot.) But I’ll elaborate a little for those who don’t know.

The pub has been hailed as ‘the primordial cell of British life’. For centuries, pubs have provided the glue that holds communities together. They are more than shops that sell drink, different from bars in that people feel a greater sense of ownership and belonging than in any other commercial establishment.

Today the great British pub ranks second or third in any survey of what visitors from abroad wish to experience when the go to the UK. And yet the pub is in crisis, with an average of 26 closing their doors for good every single week.

Against this backdrop, I wanted to tell the story of ‘one pub and everyone who has ever drank in it’, and the George emerged as the best candidate thanks to its unique combination of survival and location. There were perhaps more significant pubs historically, but they are no longer with us. And there are older pubs, but one reason they have survived is that they are tucked away in corners of the country where nothing much happens – meaning there is a less interesting story to tell.

The story of the George involves the three leading lights of English literature – not just Shakespeare, but also Chaucer and Dickens. The latter was definitely a regular at the George, but I have to warn readers that there is no firm documentary evidence that either Chaucer or Shakespeare definitely drank in the George. In Shakespeare’s case that’s because there’s hardly any documentary evidence of him doing anything at all. But circumstantial evidence that he drank in the George is very strong indeed.

As well as these guys, the story involves a wide-ranging cast of villains, prostitutes, beggars, thieves, merchants, brewers, highwaymen, prime ministers and royalty – making the George the perfect case study of the democracy and inclusiveness of the pub – qualities that make any obituary for pubs very premature indeed.

Shakespeare’s Local been my most successful book launch in the UK to date, having been serialised on BBC Radio 4 and included in several ‘best picks’ of books of 2012. It’s a book about pubs, but it’s my least beery book so far – it’s much more about broader social history, and aims to please a broader audience.

(Note to UK readers: the only things that have changed for the American edition are the cover and title and, I guess, maybe some Americanized spellings. In any and all other respects this is the same book as Shakespeare’s Local).

My previous books were way more beery. Last time I looked, aged ago, they were not available anywhere in the US, but I’m delighted to discover that all three are now listed on at non-import prices, in paperback and kindle editions. For anyone not familiar with them, here is a brief recap:

My first book looks at the history of beer (and pubs) mainly from a UK perspective.  It’s still my bestselling book overall as it keeps up steady business as an easy, accessible, general introduction to the world of beer. If you’re a beer geek looking for something more thorough and rigorous, track down anything by Martyn Cornell, or check out the Oxford Companion to Beer. What I tried to do here is discuss beer with both the irreverence and respect it deserves, offering entertainment as well as education to anyone who enjoys a good beer, but still packing in enough historical fact and trivia so that even the most knowledgeable beer geek might find something knew not just about beer, but the context it sat in, why it was there and how important it was, and still remains. This edition was updated in 2010. When people ask me which of my books is best, I tell them this is the most popular.

Breaking out of my UK perspective, for my second book I went on a world tour of important beer drinking nations. At a time when the idea of ‘craft beer’ was really happening in the US but wasn’t that well known in the UK, I compared different brewing traditions, beer styles and ways of drinking, from Europe to the US, from Portland to Prague, from Milwaukee to Melbourne, Australia, including Paddys’ Day in Ireland, Oktoberfest in Munich, and around 500 bars across thirteen countries. When people ask me which is my best book, I tell them this is the funniest.

India Pale Ale is the flagbearer of the craft beer movement, the most popular beer style among beer geeks and brewers. Everyone involved in that scene knows the legend of the beer brewed to be shipped to British garrisons in India, and the supposed transformation it underwent on the voyage. But no one knew what really happened. My third book charts my attempt to take a cask of traditionally brewed IPA from Burton-on-Trent to Calcutta by its traditional sea route around the Cape of Good Hope for the first time in 140 years. It cuts between the most detailed history of IPA there is, and my own journey on a variety of vessels. It didn’t quite go according to plan. When people ask me which is my best book, I tell them this is the best-written.

So that’s how I spent the last ten years of my life. I’m very proud to have all four books now on sale in the US and I hope American readers can cope with the slang and English vernacular* and enjoy them as much as my British readers.

Cheers, America!

*And the irritating over-reliance on footnotes. 

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Cider, Cheese, Bluegrass and Mayhem: The Gower Cider and Cheese Festival

Long blog post alert!

In two weeks’ time the Welsh Perry and Cider Guide, co-authored by me and cider photographer Bill Bradshaw, will be launched. We were commissioned to write it by the Welsh Perry and Cider Society, and spent much of last year touring Wales to research it. The highlight of our research, for me, was the Gower Cider and Cheese Weekend. It didn’t look that great on paper, but like all the best drinking occasions, its charm snuck up on us and captured us before we knew what was happening. 

For many reasons, some of which will be obvious if you read on, much of my write-up was completely unsuitable for an informative guidebook. So here’s the long version of the brief, restrained account that features in the Guide. 

The Welsh Perry and Cider Guide will be officially launched at the Welsh Perry and Cider Festival which runs from Friday 24th to Monday 27th May, and will eventually be available via Amazon and through Welsh bookshops and tourist centres. Photos below are copyright Bill Bradshaw – see more of his brilliant work at his blog, IAMCIDER.

The festival is happening again this weekend, Saturday 12th and Sunday 13th May. If you can go, I urge you to do so. 

If you time it wrong, driving through Swansea can be a dispiriting trudge past endless TGI Fridays and Premier Inns, the kind of urban crawl where, to relieve the tedium, your brain wanders off to dream up creative new methods of suicide. This is followed by an eternal limbo of endless suburban streets that only make sudden appearance of the magical playground that is the Gower Peninsula all the more surprising. At the end of another dull road you duck under some trees and instantly you’re in a dreamy, alien landscape of dunes and grassy outcrops, and winding roads that curve around cute pubs and swoop down dips and through copses, and steer you gently but firmly into conversations about scouting and woodcraft.

Fifteen minutes later we descend into a broad, shallow natural bowl ringed with trees, and arrive at the Gower Heritage Centre. This self-styled ‘vibrant crafts and rural life museum’ advertises itself as ‘a superb day out for all the family’, situated only 20 minutes walk from the spectacular Three Cliffs bay, ‘as seen on ITV’s “Britain’s Favourite View” with Katherine Jenkins’.

My accomplice Bill Bradshaw and I need no further encouragement to settle in for the day.

Built around a watermill that resembles a friendly giant, the centre is a real world manifestation of Toy Town or Hobbiton, an eccentric complex of brightly painted shacks, shops and workshops that tumble over each other to create a maze of narrow corridors and tempting doorways that assault the senses like Dorothy’s first glimpse of Technicolor Oz. Past the dairy, the puppet theatre, the ancient games arcade and village shop, all roads eventually converge on a red-tiled courtyard, roofed against the rain. On one side stands a tea-room, on the other, a pen full of small, rideable plastic tractors.

I’m trying not to say it, because it’s clichéd and lazy, but at this point I crumble. I’m only human.

“Ooh, isn’t it quaint?”

We grab a cuppa while we wait for Richie, our busy host. I browse the tea shop’s information stand: today’s event is part of a busy summer that includes Pirate Week, Viking Week, and a Medieval Fun Week where you can meet a knight and learn how to slay a dragon.

That’s it – I want to live here.

At first, I’m not so sure about the festival itself though. I’m used to beer and cider festivals with long lines of trestle tables with endless casks on stillage. Here there’s one stall with bag-in-box ciders piled three-high, and one long table selling a huge array of Welsh cheeses that all seem to be the same type of cheddar.

“It’s quiet, isn’t it?” I say to Bill. “We can probably get what we need here in a couple of hours and then go and see some more of the Gower.”

On reflection, my naiveté about cider back then was staggering.

Richie finally bounds into view and introduces himself. Impish and hyperactive, he appears to be dressed in my old school uniform of grey shirt, grey v-necked jumper and red tie. He welcomes us in a lilting, music accent and introduces us to Shaun, a local man selling his cider here for the first time, and then he’s off on another errand. We seem to have started drinking cider, and it’s nearly midday, so we take a seat and decide to do a bit of product sampling.

The centre makes its own cider on an old press rescued from a farm in Pembrokeshire. The overflow car park is an orchard with geese snoozing under trees that are only now coming into blossom, weeks late thanks to the incessant rain. Today – on the first day of the year that you actually dare to hope for summer – the produce of last year’s last year’s crop is a deep russet red, a good, honest cider at 7.4% that’s sweet and sharp with a mouth-watering metallic hint.

We’re trying to drink halves because we want to be able to sample as many as possible. Gwatkin’s Kingston Black is tart with hints of smoke and sherry. Blaengawney Blindfold has loads of structure, a real journey from acidic to dry with a hint of bubblegum before a full, pure apple flavour opens out. Two Trees Perry is clean and clear like unfermented pear juice with no trace of its 6% alcohol until it’s far too late.

By lunchtime a mellow, family-friendly vibe permeates the courtyard. There’s folk music on the stage, and the smell of barbecuing burgers and sausages in the air. The queue at the cider bar gets longer, until it snakes around the courtyard, and we decide it would be far more efficient and practical to switch to pints.

We’re sitting by the cheese stall. A chubby black Labrador, obviously the inspiration behind the invention of the hover floor cleaner, makes sure any spillage is swiftly dealt with. I love Welsh cheddar. It’s hard and strong but it melts in your mouth, seducing you unexpectedly.

I suddenly notice that I’ve been eating Snowdonia Black Bomber for some time. I wanted to see if I could find a perfect cider and cheese pairing, but that seems to have gone by the wayside. Instead, I start to imagine that the cheese can speak, and it’s saying to me in a very pleasant, reasonable South Wales accent:

“Alright mate? All it is, right, what I’m going to do, is I’m going to destroy all your willpower and any defences you have, and I’m going to come in there, and there’s going to be nothing you can do about it.  You’re going to carry on eating me, and I’m going to fill up your arteries, and then fill up your heart with cheese, and I’m going to kill you, alright? And you’re gonna love it. Anyway, enough talking, open wide.”

Gwynt Y Draig’s Black Dragon is a real crowd pleaser, open and golden with all the fruit you want before a dry tannic finish. And I suddenly realise I can’t remember how much we’ve had. The folk music onstage is sounding better and better as the afternoon progresses. The Baggy Rinkles – a Swansea sea shanty band – tell us they enjoy singing traditional drinking songs but the influence of the chapel meant they had to go to England to find them. The people waving the ancient Welsh yellow cross on a black field – somehow more terrifying than the modern dragon flag – don’t seem to mind. Give us the punch ladle, we all roar, and we’ll fathom the bowl.

A teenage boy walks past wearing a hearing aid and a Guns and Roses T-shirt, a combination which amuses me enormously for some reason. Two young couples have liberated an old Buckaroo game from the village shop, and are becoming steadily worse at playing it.

By five o’ clock, there is a very slow, mellow vibe in the air. Folk singer Ian Jones complains from the stage that his cider has run out, and one of the Buckaroo girls comes up and pours the dregs of her glass into his. Some people are wearing wellies, others flip flops. There are trilbies and deer stalker hats, and the writing in my notebook is starting to look strange.

We decide we need to sober up a bit so we pop out to walk the short distance to Three Cliffs Bay (as seen on ITV’s “Britain’s Favourite View” with Katherine Jenkins’, remember.) Folk music follows us through the woods and down the valley, echoing off the hills until we’re half way there.

When we get back to the centre, the atmosphere has changed. It’s quite a lot looser and giddier. One of the Buckaroo girls is now slumped with a hood over her face like someone waiting to be hanged. People are playing mandolins and flutes. One of the bands that was on stage earlier has now invaded the children’s little plastic tractor enclosure. While the kids charge around gleefully crashing their tractors into each other, the musicians proceed slowly and extremely carefully around the pen, as if trying to ensure they don’t get pulled over for driving under the influence.

Richie, having rakishly discarded his grey jumper and loosened his tie a little, jumps onto the stage to announce that he’s had to send up the motorway for some more cider, that they’re meeting Gwynt Y Draig half way, and this raises a loud cheer. He jumps back off the stage and starts collecting glasses and clearing up litter, seemingly a one-man festival staff operation.

My notebook is looking really odd now. I’m pushing letters uphill onto the page. I have no idea what that means, but I write it down anyway. Something is happening to me that has only happened once before.

When I drink, my handwriting generally becomes messier the more we go on, but when I decipher the scribble later I’m usually pleasantly surprised to find that I was writing some good stuff. But once I found an absinthe bar in a seedy backstreet in Barcelona, and got inside-out drunk: the more the absinthe hit my system, the neater my handwriting became. But the stuff I wrote made no sense whatsoever, and was quite disturbing in places.

Now, here on the Gower, my handwriting gets neater, then messier, then neater again as my drunken self makes an extra special effort to send messages to the sober me who will read this notebook the next morning. Or the following week. Or six months later, only days before I need to make sense of these notes for a reading at the Abergavenny Food Festival, having left it to the last minute.

At some point, I write:

“This is what my handwriting looks like when I’m a bit drunk and concentrating harder on making it look neat than on what I’m saying.” 

We drink some Gwatkin Yarlington Mill, a smouldering glass in which a candy sweetness meets a grainy, spicy dryness.

And then I write:

“It gets harder and harder to feel like this, the older we get. We’re just trying to recapture joy. We’re trying to achieve transcendence, run from boredom and mediocrity that we can’t endure. Sobriety is an illness to us, an awful state of self-doubt and awareness.” 

There’s still a family thing going on in the courtyard, but it’s wrapped around a vitality running through the place, as if it’s on a ley line. I’m conscious that I’m missing the final of Britain’s Got Talent, but I think I’ve got the better deal. In fact, I think I’m watching next year’s winner. A teenage boy is on stage singing and playing guitar, and a semi-circle of cider-drunk women seem to be closing in on him, the intense look in their eyes making it clear how keen they would be to help him grow up a little. Then he plays the Jungle Book’s ‘Bear Necessities’ for an encore. If there were any hearts in the place not won over, they are now.

I drink some more cider.

And I write: 

“Lascivious Flautism.” 
Up The Creek, a Swansea Bluegrass band, have taken the stage. And I learn that Bluegrass pulls everything in and makes you its own. I’ve written a lot about pairing the right music with the right beverage recently, and pairing cider with bluegrass is like dropping a packet of Mentos into a fizzy bottle of Coke, or a magnesium strip into water. Anything you’re holding flies into the air. Banjo and fiddle tear the corrugated plastic roof off the courtyard and fling it into space. I have no idea where Bill is. Everyone is going absolutely insane, surfing a wave of pure joy. Richie is grinning, having finally stopped working. He catches my eye, and gestures to the band. Everything about this festival, this weird little place, now makes perfect sense.

I drink some more cider. And decide it’s probably time I put my notebook away and focus on the music.
This is the first of various posts I intend to write in the drunken travel theme of my second book, Three Sheets to the Wind. If you enjoy this aspect of my writing, look out for the label ‘Four Sheets’ as I document more of my recent tipsy journeys.

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Get dissolute this weekend!

Collaboration brews with beer writers, bloggers and other non-brewers are commonplace now and get a mixed reception. Some see these beers as exciting novelties, while others feel it’s nothing but ego-stroking or half-arsed marketing. I guess it depends on whether or not the resulting beer is any good, and whether that beer would have happened anyway without the collaboration. But I’m proud of all the beers I’ve helped co-create, and am a big fan of those by other writers too.

Whatever your views, Brains Brewery have taken the whole idea of collaboration/guest brewing to another level. Brains is Wales’ largest brewer by some distance, and has a sizeable tied pub estate. Most of their beers are mainstream and uncomplicated, because that’s what most drinkers in their pubs want. But last year they decided to open a twenty barrel plant in the heart of the main brewery to produce craft beers, often in association with various guests. 2012 was all about IPAs, and two resulting collaborative brews have gone into national supermarket distribution.

This year it’s all about European beer styles. I was one of the last people they approached who responded – obviously Saisons and other currently fashionable varieties were bagsied first by other people. So what could I brew?

I thought back to my first visit to Belgium, about ten years ago. I was on my own, knew very little about beer styles and was wide open and impressionable. (It’s great to be a ‘beer expert’ now, whatever that is, but I do miss the excitement of discovery of those early days.) I had my copy of Good Beer Guide to Belgium, in which I’d starred some interesting-sounding bars, and worked my way through them trying beers I’d never heard of before.

In the middle of the first afternoon I found myself with my first ever Westmalle Dubbel, a Trappist beer at 7%ABV. Like many people who meet such beers for the first time, I was intimidated by it. But a few days before that I’d done my first ever beer tasting course, courtesy of the Beer Academy, and I sniffed and swirled and thought and swallowed and savoured, and that was probably the moment when my interest in the society, culture and history of beer was joined by a genuine passion and enthusiasm for ingredients and style, the essence of the thing itself. It was rich and chocolatey with a slight hint of sherry and spoke to me of layers of depth still waiting to be revealed.

It took me an hour to drink it, and while I was doing so I looked out of the bar window and saw a coach load of Japanese nuns pull up outside, closely followed by two men in electric wheelchairs racing down the middle of the cobbled street, one with a dwarf hanging off the back, and then a man in a karate suit came up the street from the opposite direction, doing his moves, and I fell in love with Belgium and all its surreal weirdness both inside and outside the beer glass.

In the first few years after I came back from that first Belgian trip I kept beers like Westmalle Dubbel, Westmalle Tripel, Orval and Chimay Blue as permanent mainstays in my cellar. But as the whole craft beer revolution took off, such old guard mainstays seem to have become unfashionable. Saturated by novelty, it’s easy to lose sight of the classics.

What would I like to brew? A copy of Westmalle Dubbel please – sorry, I mean a “tribute” to Westmalle Dubbel.

We called it Dissolution (geddit?) and it’s brewed with Munich and Dark Crystal malts, Saaz and Styrian Golding hops and a traditional Trappist Ale yeast. It’s turned out dark, full bodied and complex,  full of rich and fruity plum flavours with a sweet raisin aroma and a spicy, warming finish.

It should now be on the bar in Brains pubs across Wales. But the brewery has also kindly sent a couple of kegs to a pub of my choice on my manor.

I chose the Cock Tavern in Hackney, because it’s my new favourite London pub, and it’s just a brisk walk down the road. On Bank Holiday Monday 6th May at 6pm, we’ll be doing a ‘meet the pretend-brewer’ event I guess, pouring the beer and chatting to anyone who’s interested in chatting about it. There may even be some beer being poured for free. And if you don’t like my beer, there’s a microbrewery in the basement where they make some damn fine brews of their own. As far as I know it’s the only time this beer is scheduled to appear in London, so get there in good time for a taste of pseudo-Belgian magic.

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And finally… Bondi Beer!

I can’t really write any more on this blog until I’ve closed the story of Bondi Beer.

The story so far: in December I saw an appalling advertorial in The Grocer magazine for a beer called Bondi, which was calling itself a craft beer. I wrote a scathing blog post about it, assuming (I could find very few details about it online) that it was another cynical attempt to move into craft territory by a big brewer. I found a beer called Bondi online being promoted by Paris Hilton and obviously thought it was the same beer. (It wasn’t – turns out that was a different brand, different company, with the same name from the same country!)

Days later, the owner of Bondi beer contacted me. He was pretty angry and asked me to take the piece down. At first I resisted, and then I realised that this was in fact a very small company and that they were trying to do the right thing. They admitted the advertorial was rubbish and were very upset at the way it had been heavily edited. They asked me to meet them and taste the beer, and I agreed. I took my original post down – the first time I have ever done so – and explained why.

I’ve owed them this write-up ever since, but as you can see, I’ve hardly been blogging, because I’ve been so busy up against book deadlines. I could have slipped this post in at a time when this blog wasn’t really active, but I thought that would be the equivalent of trying to bury bad news at a time no one would see it. I wanted to wait until this blog was properly active again to guarantee this would reach my full audience. Sorry that has taken so long.

I met the Bondi guys in the fantastic Porterhouse in Covent Garden, which stocks their beer. We had a few beers and made peace. It was a good meeting. And it was a very, very good beer. Bondi is a four per cent lager that does not taste like you’d expect a four per cent lager with Australian branding to taste. It is contract-brewed in the Czech Republic, and it shows. There’s a brilliant Saaz hop character on the nose, bready and grassy, and a perfect balance of flavour, with proper body, a good buzzy finish, and yet the crisp refreshment of a good lager. It drinks way over four per cent – you’d guess at five, easily – so it’s very satisfying at such a low ABV.

I would heartily recommend this beer to anyone. I wouldn’t call it a ‘craft’ beer, as the advertorial originally did, but it’s a far better lager than any of the main commercial brands.

And that’s it, apart from two caveats.

One, I’m not writing this because Bondi asked me to. I promised them I would, and that was four months ago. They’ve put no pressure on me at all to get this post up here. I’m not saying it’s a great beer because anyone has told me I have to, I’m saying it because it’s a great beer, and if it wasn’t, I’d say that too. The only reason this didn’t appear before now is that I haven’t had time to blog about anything until the last week or so.

Two, in my defence, I just want to reiterate one point given that I took my original post down. A few commenters have been very keen for me to issue this clarification. One or two have accused me of slagging off a beer without having tasted it. I never did that. In my original post, I made no mention at all of the taste of the beer. I was slagging off the marketing – something I went way over the top with and regret in retrospect – but I make a professional point of not dissing a beer’s character without tasting it. (I took a similar approach with previous posts dissing the launches of Stella Black and Stella Cidre, following up with posts about the drinks themselves when I was able to try them).

Now I have tasted Bondi, I’m more than happy to talk about how good the beer is. I still think the launch marketing approach was ill-advised, and we talked about that too. The best thing Bondi can do is forget the jargon and sloganeering, and just put all their effort into trying to get beer into people’s hands.

I wish them all the luck in the world in replacing other Aussie beers on British bars.

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The mischievous Swede and the truth about Stella Artois

A few months ago I was contacted by Jonas Magnusson, a Swedish TV programme maker who wanted to interview me for a series of programmes he was making about beer. We met in the George Inn and had a great chat.

I normally confine remarks to stuff I feel positive about in interviews such as this – when talking to a mainstream audience, I’d rather concentrate on what’s great about beer than moan about what’s wrong. But somehow we got on to big global megabrands that don’t actually care about beer at all, and we talked a bit about Stella Artois in particular in this respect.

A couple of days ago Jonas e-mailed me a link to a YouTube clip of when he went to Leuven to interview AB-Inbev about Stella. “You might be interested in this,” he said.

24 hours later there was another email titled ‘Did You Watch it’? I thought this was a bit pushy, as I’ve been frantically busy, but Jonas seemed really, really keen that I watch the clip.

And then, this morning, writer and blogger Max Brearley posted a link to the clip on Twitter, urging me to watch it.

I took the hint.

Here’s the film: if you’d like to watch it without my commentary, go ahead now. If you don’t have eleven minutes to watch it through, skip below to read about why you should.

Meet Jean-Jacques Velkeniers, Marketing Director for both Stella Artois and Jupiler in Belgium, Netherlands, France and Luxembourg. Jean jacques is a career marketer who is clearly passionate about his brand.

He says “it all started” with the merger of Interbrew and AmBev to create Inbev in 2004.  (Funny, because I thought Stella was a giant brand before then and was already in steep decline in the UK by this time.) He tells Magnus that these two companies shared the same vision and passion for beer.

What is this vision and passion?

“Conquering the world, market by market, using fantastic brands like Stella Artois,” replies Jean-Jacques.

Magnus then asks what would seem to be a fairly straightforward question: what does this world conquering beer actually taste like?

To which Jean-Jacques replies: “Can we cut there? That’s a very difficult question.”

The man responsible for marketing Stella Artois across a good chunk of Western Europe is unable to describe what the beer tastes like.

After consulting two colleagues he recovers his poise and claims he just didn’t know the words in English – this is astonishing as (a) so far his English has been impeccable – he has a perfect grasp of marketing jargon especially – and (b) even if he’s telling the truth, this means that as Marketing Director he’s never been asked what his beer tastes like in English before.

After being briefed on what his product tastes like, he tells us that it is very refreshing with a full-bodied taste, “crispy” (let’s be fair and put that one down to genuine translation issues) and that “after a couple of seconds you get that bitter after-note in your mouth that makes it quite unique.”

Yes, you read that right.

The marketing director of Stella Artois thinks his beer is unique because it has a bitter aftertaste.

To be fair, AB-Inbev do not allow their employees to taste beer from any other brewer, even when they’re off the clock, so maybe he wasn’t to know that bitterness is a common characteristic in almost all  beers – and that his brand rates pretty damn low in the bitterness stakes compared to most others. But still, you might have expected Jean-Jacques to have been given special dispensation given his role.

You might expect a man responsible for selling a huge beer brand in four European countries to have the first clue about what a typical beer’s flavour profile is.

But we press on. Magnus asks Jean-Jacques if he would be able to pick out this special, unique flavour in a blind taste test. He’s definitely up for it – you can’t fault him on his conviction.

But what he doesn’t know is that Magnus has already been out on the streets of Leuven, doing blind taste tests with people who regularly drink Stella and are loyal to the brand. It quickly becomes clear that no one can taste any difference at all between Stella and its sister brand, Jupiler. They do come from the same brewery – Jean-Jacques looks after them both – so perhaps they are – ahem – very similar beers packaged differently?

To make things more interesting, Magnus then gets out a cheap, crummy can of Swedish beer. “Yes, that’s definitely Stella,” say more Stella drinkers. “I had a pint five minutes ago and that tastes just the same.”

Back at AB-Inbev HQ, Jean-Jacques is gearing up for the blind taste test between Stella, Jupiler and the crappy Swedish beer when Natasha, the PR person intervenes. She tells Jean-Jacques that there was a pre-agreed script for the interview, and that this was not part of it.

If you want to interview someone from AB-Inbev you have to give them prior approval of a script!

As they discuss whether the taste test is going to be possible or not, Natasha briefly mulls over whether it would be OK just with Stella and Jupiler (Jean-Jacques is never allowed to drink a non-AB Inbev beer, remember) and Jean-Jacques has to remind his PR person that “They are filming everything we say.”

In the end, they decline to take part in any taste test, for three beautifully crafted reasons:

  • The beer is the wrong temperature
  • Jean-Jacques is “not prepared”
  • You need a glass of water to clean the mouth between beers 
I guess a glass of water was not available.
This is a sublime piece of film making. The number of different ways it skewers this marketing organisation, demonstrating that not only do they not care about beer, they don’t even know what it tastes like, is sublime.
You might not think there’s much difference between commercial lagers. But when I worked on Stella Artois fifteen years ago, before the merger that created Inbev, before the relentless cost-cutting came in, before everyone at Interbrew who had a genuine passion for beer was fired and replaced by career marketers like Jean-Jacques, everyone on our team could have picked out Stella in a blind taste test. We pursued this old-fashioned notion that you can’t sell a product properly unless you know and understand it. And you can’t do that unless you can train your palate to taste it – no scratch that – unless you can even be bothered to try it every now and again.
It’s something craft brewers do every day of their lives. And even among big global corporations, if you asked a similar corporate drone working for, say, Heineken or Carlsberg, they’d be able to tell you what the beer tastes like and why. They’d know that beer tends to have a bitter finish. They might not even have learned it for themselves in tutored tasting sessions, but if not they’d have access to some sort of cribsheet.
But of course, AB-Inbev is not a brewer, and Stella Artois is not a beer. It’s a fantastic brand that is too busy conquering the world, market by market, to worry about such trivial things as what the product is, or what it tastes like. 
The Great Beer Tour consists of three one-hour episodes, and starts on SVT (Swedish television) on 16th April.