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Dave Wickett, Beer Legend, RIP

Dave Wickett died. Bastard cancer.

This award-winning, iconic Sheffield pub would not have existed without Wickett

Wickett gave cancer more than it bargained for.  When cancer said, “You’ve got six months,” Wickett replied, “Fuck you,” and went off and planned and opened a new brewery, and carried on living life to the full for another two years.

Dave Wickett died, aged 64, on 16th May 2012.

He’d been diagnosed with terminal cancer in January 2010.

How’s that for six months?

The much-loved 2004 Champion Beer of Britain would not have existed without Wickett

Beer is a tight-knit community.  If you’re reading this blog, you may well have met Dave Wickett.  If you didn’t, you probably know someone who did. And if you don’t think you did, I promise you you’re more closely connected then you might think. You’re probably no more than two – at a maximum, three – degrees of separation away from one of beer’s singular heroes.

I knew Wickett (everyone just called him Wickett) pretty well.  Not as well as his close friends and colleagues, but pretty well, because I was supposed to be ghosting his autobiography.  To my shame I didn’t get as far with that as I wanted to before he died – not by a long way.  I hope it will eventually reach fruition, but that discussion is for some time later.

Wickett grew up on the outskirts of London in the swinging sixties. He saw England win the World Cup at Wembley in 1966 (football was his great passion before beer ever was), and off the back of that, in a somewhat unlikely fashion (the story of his life) ended up in Sheffield – a city he much preferred to the UK’s capital. That, in itself, is a big clue – here was a man who saw things differently.

You’re probably familiar with the story of how CAMRA came to the rescue of British cask ale in the 1970s.  You may be less familiar with what Wickett did.  He never threw himself into committees and mock funerals for closing breweries.  He had little interest in the politics of the organisation.  But he read and absorbed, and used the fledgling Good Beer Guide like a bible. But as a Polytechnic Economics lecturer, he also balanced passion for real ale with objective business nous – which brought him to the same place as his passion.  So he bought a run-down freehouse pub in a derelict area of Sheffield, named it the Fat Cat, and set out a stall consisting of a decent real ale selection and a food menu that always had a veggie option, winning heaps of awards over the next 30 years.

This brewery would probably never have happened without Wickett

In order to make the pub work as he wanted it to, Wickett challenged the declining 1970s real ale brewers to change the way they did business. They had to, if they wanted to supply him – and this new business arrangement would change the fortunes of countless other pubs.

In his lectures, he used real ale as a case study to prove how big business was distorting the ‘principles’ of the free market by using anti-competitive measures to deny choice to the consumer – something even Margaret Thatcher would have objected to – and when the Tories did object, and created a guest beer rule that freed pubs from a 100% brewery tie, Wickett opened his own brewery, Kelham Island in Sheffield. Kelham Island Pale Rider was Champion Beer of Britain in 2004, an early example of the golden ale that has now come to dominate Britain’s cask ale revival.

He’d been busy in the day job too, and had taken on responsibility for an innovative student exchange/placement programme that saw some of his Sheffield business students going to Rochester, New York, to run the first proper English pub in the US – the Old Toad, which helped pioneer cask ale in America.

The brewer on the left was hired for his first job in brewing by Dave Wickett

Wickett was never in it to make a high pile of cash.  He wanted to live a comfortable life doing what he loved.  He often compared himself to J D Wetherspoons’ Tim Martin, who opened his first pub in the same year Wickett did.  Wickett sometimes pondered if he should have gone down a more aggressive, chain-building route, and was often asked why he didn’t do that.  But he was always happy with his choices – he preferred running what he had, and taking on new challenges as and when they interested him.

So while Wetherspoons expanded with a fixed format across hundreds of branches, Wickett decided to open Champs, a sports bar in Sheffield.  Then he decided to invest in and guide the development of a tiny new brewery called Thornbridge.  He hired the two young brewers – one of them being Martin Dickie, who would later go on to co-found Brew Dog. But when Thornbridge wanted to grow at a greater rate, Wickett pulled out amicably, wished them well, and looked for new projects.

Sheffield is the real ale capital of the world thanks to Dave Wickett

After he was diagnosed with cancer, he opened another new brewery, Welbeck Abbey, as part of the School of Artisan Food.  It’s still in its infancy, but as part of a brilliant set-up that teaches people about great food and drink across the board, offering lessons in disciplines such as baking and butchery, with the makers of Stichelton cheese also included as part of the set-up, it’s another innovative operation that will help take serious beer appreciation onto a broader foodie stage.

Meanwhile, back in Sheffield, the ripples of Wickett’s actions were extraordinary.  Wickett wasn’t always an easy taskmaster, and over the years various brewers fell out with him, felt frustrated with his direction, or weren’t good enough to keep their jobs.  The extraordinary thing is that just about everyone who quit or was fired from Kelham Island went on to start a brewery of their own, often less than a couple of miles away.  Kelham is now at the centre of a dense cloud of microbreweries, and Sheffield has more cask ales on tap at any one time than any other city in the world.

Dave Wickett leaves an extraordinary legacy to the beer world.  Not just from his own actions, but from the people he inspired and who have imitated him.  The ripples of his brilliant life and career will continue to influence the beer world for years to come.

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Beer? Books? Classic Albums? Perfect Pubs? GIN?! It can only be Stokeylitfest

If you’re in North London, or fancy making the journey, you should wear your clever drinking boots on Jubilee Weekend.

The Stoke Newington Literary Festival is organised every year by my wife, and it takes place this year on 1st to 3rd June, and between stocking bars, introducing acts on stage, running to CostCo and directing volunteers, I’ll be doing a couple of events you might be interested in.

On Saturday 2nd June I’m teaming up with Robin Turner to talk perfect London pubs.  Robin is one of the co-authors of this excellent book, which you should definitely read, and not just because I’m in it:

I’ve often spoken about my huge admiration for The Moon Under Water by George Orwell, the best thing anyone has ever written about pubs.  Robin and his co-writer Paul Moody, who together run the excellent Caught by the River, travelled the country trying to find Orwell’s vision.  Yes, they looked in Wetherspoons, and they looked in many other places as well, including London.  As my new book is about a legendary London pub, the George in Southwark:

we thought we’d get together and chat about some Perfect London Pubs, and what makes them so.  We’ll be doing that over a beer upstairs in the White Hart (one of my perfect London pubs) on Saturday 2nd at 1pm.

The following day, I’ll be back in the same place for a beer and music matching event.  Last year I did beer and book matching and it went down pretty well, so I’ve moved it on this year.  I wrote ages ago about how scientists have proved that listening to particular styles of music can actually change the taste of what you’re drinking.  It’s called Cognitive Priming Theory, and means that particular combinations can create a greater overall sensory experience.  I’ve been mulling this over for a while, and in February I put it to the test with a feature in WORD magazine where I matched up ten beers with ten classic albums.

Duvel, for example, poured from the bottle into its tulip glass, is so feisty it tries to climb up the walls off the glass as if it’s trying to get out and claw your face off.  This is exactly the same experience as the opening chords of Debaser by the Pixies.  Put the two together and it’s wildly exhilarating.

Hopback Summer Lightning is too mellow to go with the Pixies and would jar slightly, but put it with Higher than the Sun of Slip Inside This House from Primal Scream’s Screamadelica, and you create a woozy, sun-kissed tip that takes you half way to Ibiza.  Brew Dog Abstrakt 08 with Public Enemy? Thornbridge Jaipur with the Stone Roses?  The possibilities are endless.  I’ll be choosing six at 1pm in the White Hart.

The link back to books from that one may be tenuous, but Stokeylitfest has always had a strong musical bent too, and this year we’ve also got Wilko Johnson, a retrospective on the NME with some of its most illustrious former hacks, a review of indie music, and loads more.  Check out the website for full details.

And that’s not the end of the booze.  Refreshed after my event (some beers will be included in the admission price) you may want to toddle along to the talk being hosted by festival sponsors Hendrick’s Gin.

They’re going to take us on a tour through the history of gin, and some of the legendary writers and characters it has inspired, with some free samples throughout.

With a unique festival beer brewed by Redemption, and other bar sponsors including Aspall’s and Budvar, we’ll be showing how brain food and booze are the perfect combination.

See you there.

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Why I’ve finally joined CAMRA

Well there we are.  I’ve set up the direct debit and got my membership number.

This is in some ways a ‘hell freezes over’ moment for me, and there are traces of discomfort around the edges of my decision.  But it was the right thing to do.

What’s the big deal?  Many of my readers (and friends) simply assume I’m a CAMRA member already, given what I do.

A few words of explanation for people who may have started following me more recently:

Back in the day, when I wrote my first book, Man Walks into a Pub, I earned a bit of notoriety by attacking CAMRA in its pages.  I have carried on attacking them – albeit with declining frequency – ever since.  With hundreds of beer blogs now, many written by younger, craft beer fans, there’s nothing unusual these days about seeing CAMRA slagged for being out of touch, blinkered, too set in its ways etc.  But at the time I wrote MWIAP, in ye olde pre-beer blogging, pre-social media days, you didn’t do that.  I was unable to find anything else in print at the time about CAMRA that deviated from the line that cask beer was facing extinction until they came along, and then they arrived, and saved the world.

I was a big real ale fan, but I also drank mainstream lager (there wasn’t much else between them back then.)  When I went to CAMRA beer festivals I felt alienated.  It came across as a clique – one that I really didn’t want to be part of.  There was a sneering, condescending attitude towards people who drank lager – and as I keep saying, calling someone an idiot has never been a great strategy for persuading them round to your point of view.  There was that social stereotype of the socially inadequate, visibly outlandish beer nerd, with his big belly, beard, opaque glasses, black socks and sandals, and leather tankard on his belt.  I didn’t want anyone to think that just because I was writing about beer, I was one of those people.  (Distressingly, in the last ten years I’ve grown to look more similar to this stereotype than I would like.  But beards are trendy now.  As for the belly, well, I need to so something about that.  The rest of it, mercifully, remains at a distance.)

I wanted no part of a world view that denied there was any such thing as good beer that wasn’t real ale.  It rankled when lager was unfailingly dismissed as ‘industrial yellow fizz’.  I gnashed my teeth whenever I picked up a book with a title like ‘Beers of Britain’, and brands like Carling weren’t even in the index.  OK, you might not like big mainstream brands, but saying you were writing about British beer and then pretending 70% of the market simply didn’t exist was childish.  Include them and dismiss them as crap in one line if you must, but really… I’d come away from events such as the Great British Beer Festival (not the ‘Great British Real Ale Festival’, note) feeling genuinely angry at the distorted picture it gave of British beer, and the contradictions that riddled CAMRA’s stance on “We’re the campaign for real ale, that’s our name, we can’t support anything else (oh, except if we feel like campaigning for cider, oh and Budvar.)”

I shared many of CAMRA’s beliefs.  But I felt I couldn’t sign my name to an organisation that believed real ale was the only beer worth drinking.  The emphasis on format and container rankled whenever I thought about it.

So what’s changed?  Is this a sell out, a kind of tiny scale inversion of Bob Dylan going electric?

Well, the nerds are still there, and I’m still uncomfortable about people at parties thinking I’m one of them when I tell them what I do.  And some of those issues I objected to are arguably more prevalent than ever, now craft beer has expanded beyond real ale to incorporate quality drinks of all shapes, sizes, formats and containers (jeez, even canned beer is good nowadays).  And CAMRA still refuses to change its stance on campaigning for real ale, and only real ale (unless they feel like bending the rules for cider, Budvar, etc.)  I still have fundamental disagreements with them on major policy directions.  I still think they often present an image that’s by turns cheesy, out of date and out of touch, and sometimes pompous and arrogant.

But many things are different now.

I could talk about how CAMRA’s membership has doubled since I started writing about beer, but the number of outlandish nerds hasn’t, about how CAMRA’s membership is broader, younger, more female, more inclusive now.

I could talk about how key figures such as CEO Mike Benner and magazine editor Tom Stainer talk nothing but good sense whenever they open their mouths, or how branch chairmen like Tandleman present a moderate view that, even if I sometimes disagree with, I can see the point of, and how these are all great people to enjoy a beer with.

I could reflect on the fact that 140,000 people represents a very broad church and a huge spread of opinions, that there is no monolithic ‘CAMRA’ to rail against, and that every time I criticise aspects of CAMRA there are many members who agree with me.

I could point out that there is a new rhetoric coming from a senior level, along the lines that a Campaign FOR Real Ale does not mean a Campaign AGAINST Other Beers, that even if CAMRA does not act for other great types of beer, it doesn’t (or rather, shouldn’t) act against them, and that while there are still some dinosaurs with positions of influence within the organisation who don’t reflect this official stance, I am as ‘for’ real ale as I am ‘for’ any other type of craft beer (because real ale is one type of craft beer – of course it is).

I could admit that for the last four or five years I’ve really, really enjoyed the Great British Beer Festival, despite its Gordian knots of logic and bureaucracy.

And I could argue that, as a writer who likes to campaign for great beer when it is being attacked or derided, when pubs are being hammered by successive governments and beer is still, for the most part, either ignored or scapegoated by the press, it’s important to stop playing Judean People’s Popular Front and recognise that what unites us is more important than what divides us.  This is what I’ve been preaching at industry conferences and in the trade press for a while now, and my own anti-CAMRA stance is increasingly at odds with what I’m saying.

I could promise to campaign from within, and try to justify my decision by saying that I’ll continue my criticism at conferences and AGMs, where it might have more effect. (But I’m not sure I have the time or the will for that.)

I could say all these things to justify my about-face.

But while I’m not saying any of that is untrue, or not a factor, the real reason I’m joining CAMRA is that being a member is the only bleeedin’ way I can get hold of BEER magazine, which now goes out to members only, and is the only consumer-oriented beer publication in the UK, and pretty much the only publication on beer of any description that I always read cover to cover when I can scrounge a copy from Tom.  I give in.  I surrender.  OK, I’ll join your bloody organisation.  Just send me the magazine.


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Someone (formerly?) at Diageo is probably having trouble sitting down at the moment…

It’s the drinks PR omnishambles that makes George Osborne look like a competent chancellor.

Brew Dog have long been known for their spectacular PR stunts, but the storm that broke on Twitter today seemed breathtaking even by their standards.

In this sensational statement, Brew Dog claimed that at the Scottish BII Awards last weekend, Brew Dog were voted clear winners of the Bar Operator of the Year Award.  They knew this because the judges were sitting at their table and told them so.  So everyone was surprised when another company’s name was read out, with judges saying, ‘That’s not possible.’

The plot thickened when the ‘winners’ took the stage and refused to accept the trophy because it had Brew Dog’s name engraved on it!

Later, according to Brew Dog, the BII phoned and said this had happened because Diageo, the main sponsors of the award, had threatened BII officials, warning them that any future sponsorships would be cancelled if the award was presented to Brew Dog.

Another stunt?

Well… no.  Brew Dog are famous for stunts, but this would be suicide if it were not true.  And this was all about the bars – say what you like about the sensationalism of the head honchos, love or hate the brand, but as I’ve said repeatedly, the bars are about nothing but genuine passion and hard work.  Could this really be spin and exaggeration?

No, it couldn’t.

I asked Diageo for a statement, and here it is:

“There was a serious misjudgement by Diageo staff at the awards dinner on Sunday evening in relation to the Bar Operator of the Year Award, which does not reflect in anyway Diageo’s corporate values and behaviour.

“We would like to apologise unreservedly to BrewDog and to the British Institute of Innkeeping for this error of judgement and we will be contacting both organisations imminently to express our regret for this unfortunate incident.”
I’ve got more to say about the increasingly shameless bullying and anticompetitive tactics employed by some (but not all) big brewers, but this one really takes the biscuit.  Diageo, having been caught red handed, had no option but to blame it on a rogue element, and we must take them at their word.  But does this reveal something deeper about the attitudes of some global brewing corporations?

Brew Dog’s facility with social media means that the hashtag, #andthewinnerisnot, was trending globally by early afternoon.  Would Diageo have rushed out this grovelling apology before the advent of social media?  I’m not sure they would.  We may well look back on this as the start of the tables turning in how different types of brands manage their media.  We live in a very transparent and interconnected world these days – interesting times, as the Chinese would say…

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The Session #63: (The) Beer Moment(s)

My whole writing career has been based on the notion that there’s something about beer that is greater than the sum of the parts.  There are other ways of relaxing, other alcoholic drinks, other special moments to share with friends.  But my belief, after going across the world talking to beer drinkers and sharing a glass with them, is that there’s more to it.
That’s what I wanted to use my turn to host the session to explore.  It’s been a fascinating experience.  I deliberately wanted to set a topic that was as open and inclusive as possible (like beer itself), something unpretentious that anyone felt they could make a contribution to.  And this has been borne out by the comments/contributions.  I’m not sure how the 54 comments on the original post compares with other sessions, but it’s a great response.  And more importantly, at least three of those commenters were contributing to The Session for the first time.  Hopefully it won’t be the last, guys – you did good.
Of course, set a bunch of beer bloggers an open-ended, loosely defined topic, and the more analytical end of the spectrum will wonder, “What does he mean by that?  What does he want from us?  What’s his agenda?  What is the technical definition of the beer moment?” 
While most found my brief simple and motivating, others felt I was being obscurantist, and accused my announcement post of ‘impenetrable prose’. 
Honestly, I had no agenda – other than to encourage wide participation and to focus the session on the emotions around beer rather than the definitional politics of craft beer, of which I’ve grown heartily bored.  (But if you find them fascinating, then that’s OK.  We don’t need to argue about it.)
So, on with the round-up.
There are a lot of comments, and I need to fit them all in, in as readable a way as I can.  I’m going to mix up mentions and links if that’s OK.  HUGE apologies if I miss anyone out – it wasn’t intentional.
It was a varied bag.  Some people read ‘the Beer Moment’ as the need to pick just one, singular moment from a lifetime of loving beer.
For Professor Pie Tin (comment on original post), this moment was a bar in an unfamiliar neighbourhood, a “Whaddya havin’?” and the beginning of a 30 year love affair.  For Jordan, it was a different beer, same resonance.

Other felt that there were many such ‘Beer Moments’, and didn’t want to choose just one, giving a wide array of examples.  Tiffany put these in picturesDavid muses on walking in the Lakeland fells and meeting old school friends, and Jorge lists many moments in few words, succeeding in making himself (and me) thirsty.

Beer for the Weekend (a first time sessioneer) offers a trio of stand-out life beer moments, and Landells (another Session virgin) lists many classic moments before plumping for that common moment when “you’ve got so caught up in something that for a few minutes you’ve actually forgotten that your beer even exists but then you slowly turn to the side and your beer is sitting there, you smile, nod your head approvingly and then reach out your hand.”  Derrick offers five examples, some happy, some sad, and asks us, “Could any other beverage create such a diversity of universal moments?”
Moving on from that, for most people it wasn’t about specific moments per se, it was about lots of moments that had common characteristics – and even here, those characteristics could vary.
Beer Nut rumbled my mission to open things up and thinks he resisted my attempt to move away from geekery, by saying his moment was finding a beer he hadn’t ticked off before, even if that beer wasn’t great.
Thing is BN, you’re still talking about how that moment makes you feel, so I win.  And you were funny too, not just geeky.  And you’re not alone.  For TudorguySean, and others, the Beer Moment is also when you encounter a beer for the first time, and you love it.  These are the moments you feel alive.  And it’s very similar with cider too.  
Or it may simply be, like Wyreman (comment on original post), Nate Dawg and others, the moment is the feeling of anticipation when you order a beer, new or old, the moment before it touches your lips.  Daniel made a video in which he talks about the moment the beer is poured (and also about our current moment in the evolution of beer brewing appreciation – this moment, right now – as a significant beer moment.)
For Reluctant Scoop, it’s one moment later, as the first gulp slides down, expressed to perfection in this iconic film scene:
For people like Matt, Gary and Paul (comment on original post) it’s when the drink is right, but that’s not enough – the people and the atmosphere have to be right too.  It’s about the context in which you drink your beer the respite and communion with like-minded people.  Jayelde, a first time contributor to the Session, believes these moments are about common ground, about beer bringing people together.  Sam agrees – it’s about simple satisfaction, but also bonding, and for John, it’s about excitement and sociability.
These moments may be planned or unplanned, says Bob, but the unplanned ones are often the best.  Over in San Diego at the Craft Brewer’s Conference, it seems the majority would agree.  Stan took a poll there, the results of which suggest any time could be the time for the perfect beer moment.
The Beer Moment might be the moment of understanding between harassed bar staff and a regular customer late at night, or if you’re a brewer, it might be the labour and the chance to taste the results.
It can also be a solo thing – not for everyone, but for some.  It’s that reward at the end of a long, shitty day – not especially shitty, just every day shitty, and special mention must go to Beerbecue (and his adorable daughter) for bringing that to life in a short film that says more than words can.  Craig talks about the perfect combination of beer, sunshine and grill – but the final ingredient to his mise-en-place is more revealing and resonant.
Uncle Puble also talks about that transition, that me-time at the end of the working day
While Ghostdrinker explore similar territory before moving onto moments that are more special and specific, and Tale of Ale sums up such ‘first beer of the day’ moments as those times when “everything falls into place and life is always good and not much else does that in the world”.
Leigh takes us into more poignant territory – the beer helping create a moment of reflection on hearing the new that a much-loved musical hero has died.
Steve Lamond takes a more emotive stab at similar territory, reminding us that beer is timeless, that in the beer moment “we are transported back to… a time before any of the cares of the modern world and allow ourselves to relax.”
As well as relaxation, there’s inspiration – just ask Broadford Brewer, who expresses it thus:
Joe thinks this happens because the reward and relaxation, sparked by the sensations coming through taste receptors that have had this experience before, link the current beer moment to previous ones, to fond memories and associations.
All contributors, being beer bloggers, are craft beer drinkers who would always rate tasty, crafted beers over insipid mainstream lagers.  But the beer moment is not exclusive to craft beer.  That doesn’t mean the beer moment equals ‘not caring about what you drink’ (see below) it just means the moment can be bigger than the beer.  Ask John, whose first ever beer shared with his father was a can of Foster’s.  Crap beer, still a very special moment
Jeremy agrees – a love of craft beer doesn’t preclude special moments with ordinary beers – if the moment is right.
Having said that, I bet few people would disagree with RSB (another session first-timer) who argues that in general, there’s a correlation between the best moments and the best beers.
But could any (alcoholic) drink do this? 
Looke doesn’t think so, arguing that “the one moment that is purely of pleasure” is a “little spark that goes off inside which doesn’t happen with a glass of wine or a G&T”.
Jay – who came up with this whole ‘Session’ idea – points out that it is beer that links all the most special moments in life, and has done throughout history, across a broader range, far more than any other drink.  These are truly the moments that matter most.
Of course, this is beer.  And in beer there’s always someone who wants to dispute and over-analyze, and bring joy crashing back down to earth.  According to Alan, the very idea of a beer moment is “just silly”, which must mean everyone mentioned above is deluded and utterly mistaken. 
 “Beer does not change the moment even when it is present within it. Any number of other things could be there instead,” he argues, suggesting that a cup of tea or a cigarette could just as easily have created the moments everyone has described so passionately.  He actually seems to take offence at the very notion of discussing the beer moment, and decries the whole thing as a marketing construct, which is strange given that few of the scenarios above have ever appeared in beer marketing (although some obviously have).  
“Don’t let the admen fool you,” he warns, meaning, presumably, me.  (I’m not an adman anymore.)
If advertising were as powerful as Alan thinks it is, every last one of you would now be drinking Budweiser and Stella Artois, and nothing else.  And you wouldn’t be as happy with beer as you obviously are.  Talking about the context, the emotions and the companionship, does NOT mean you don’t care about what you drink – as many commenters have pointed out.  It simply means that beer is one part of a healthy, joyful life – unless you’re someone who would just rather sit and analyze and deconstruct beer instead.  
If you are one of those people (and Alan has never, before now, struck me as someone who is) I think the point of this Session is that you should get out more – you could be enjoying your beer even more than you are now.

Thanks to everyone for taking part!

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The Session no.63: May the fourth be with you!

The Session is a monthly event for the beer blogging community which was started by Stan Hieronymus at Appellation Beer. On the first Friday of each month, all participating bloggers write about a predetermined topic. Each month a different blog is chosen to host The Session, choose the topic, and post a roundup of all the responses received. For more info on The Session, check out the Brookston Beer Bulletin’s nice archive page.

At long last, I’ve got round to hosting a session.  It’s my turn to come up with a topic that will inspire beer bloggers around the world to write on the same day about the same subject.

But what should that topic be?

There’s always a danger with something like this that you become navel gazing or self-congratulatory, that you might sit round in a big mutual circle jerk and say, ‘Look at all us beer bloggers.  Aren’t we marvellous?  Aren’t we important?’

And then there’s the danger that you might take something that’s of passing interest in beer and magnify it to a far greater degree of importance than it should have.  That we might start to debate the finer points of differences between beer styles or discuss at length the virtues of a particular hop.  When I first encountered the beer world, I found such discussions crashingly dull.  I often have to remind myself that I still do.

Or worse, we might write about beer blogging instead of beer.  I’ve been guilty of that many times in the past.  Occasionally it has its place.  But every time, I’m brought up short by the real world, and I realise just how few people ‘out there’ ever read beer blogs, apart from other beer bloggers, I suspect this is why.

My approach to beer writing is by no means the only approach, but I write to try to encourage other people to share the simple joy of beer as much as I do, to switch on people who drink beer but don’t particularly care about it that much, to suggest to them that there’s so much more they might enjoy.  No one says you have to do it this way, and no one ever made me the spokesperson for beer.  It’s just how I decided to write, in the same way others decided to write in an opinionated way about what they love, and what they hate.

So in that spirit, my choice of topic – with 62 topics already covered – is this: simply, the Beer Moment.

What is it?

Well, what is it to you?  What does that phrase evoke for you?

That’s the most important thing here.  Switch off and float downstream, what comes to mind?  Don’t analyse it – what are the feelings, the emotions?

I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot recently, because I’ve been talking about it to various people who are working hard to try to improve the image of beer in the UK.  Because whether we articulate it or not, whether we drink vile, sunstruck Corona or barrel aged imperial stout brewed with weasel shit, it’s about the moment far more than the liquid itself.  The only people who disagree with me on this are people I wouldn’t want to share a beer with.

The moment – for me – is relaxation, reward, release, relief and refreshment.  It’s a moment to savour, a moment of mateship, potential, fulfilment, anticipation, satisfaction, and sheer bliss.

It’s different from the moment you drink wine or spirits – it’s more egalitarian, more sociable.  It’s not just about the flavour, nor the alcohol.  It’s about the centuries of tradition and ritual, the counterpoint to an increasingly stressful life, and the commonality, the fact that it means the same thing to so many.

At least – I think it does.  What does it mean to you?

This session takes place on Friday 4th May (giving me the prefect excuse to use the tired but still irresistible headline above.)  You don’t have to take part.  But if you want to, have a think, and write on Friday 4th about whatever comes to mind when you see the words ‘The Beer Moment’.

If you do it as a blog post, please send me a link, and afterwards I’ll do a round-up of who said what.  Or if you prefer, just leave a comment below.


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In search of a Black Country Legend

“So you like beer then.”


“What’s your favourite?”

“I don’t really have one.”

“Have you tried Bathams?”


“Ah.  Well then.”

Some beers go beyond rationale analysis and objective evaluation, and attain mythic status.  The affection people have for them is not based simply on a hoppy aroma and firm malty base; it doesn’t have much to do with ingredients or flavour.  It transcends the liquid itself -or perhaps, that liquid becomes something divine and attracts all the clothing of religious devotion.

Westverleteren has it, though it’s carefully stage-managed by the Belgian monks who take pains to control its scarcity.  Timothy Taylor Landlord has it – a beer which excites old ale drinkers and new crafty beer drinkers alike, which elicits simple sighs from beer writers who have used up all the words they have in trying to describe its perfection.

These beers are revered.  I knew of them within about five minutes of entering the beer world.

But I happily published two books, made my mark with this blog, and gained at least one column in the pub trade press before I’d ever heard of Bathams.

I was doing some freelance advertising work with a bloke from Birmingham when I first had the conversation above.  I’ve since the same conversation about six times, each time with a native of Birmingham or the West Midlands.  Each time, my ‘no’ got a little less “No?” in that tone that goes up at the end as if to say, “Should I have?”, and a bit more “Nooooooo…” swooping down like a Messerschmitt in flames, defensive and frustrated and increasingly certain I was missing something special, fearing I was a lesser man, never mind a lesser beer writer, for not only having never drunk this beer, but for not having even seen any evidence of its existence apart from the word of an increasing number of Brummies who didn’t know each other, and therefore could not have been winding me up.

But I never see Bathams at festivals.  I never see anyone writing about it.  I don’t see it in shops.

Its acolytes try to describe its power to me.  It’s a session beer, they say.  But that doesn’t do it justice.  It’s more than that, it’s… oh, you just have to taste it, they say, and then, every time, they say, “Of course, there are only about five pubs in the world that sell it.  And they’re all in Birmingham and the West Midlands.”

The last person I had this conversation with was Charles Campion, food and drink writing legend and one of the most decent men on the planet.  And because Charles really is one of the most decent men on the planet, he resolved to put me out of my misery.  So a few weeks ago, nursing a brewers’ conference sized hangover, I found myself in the back of a car while Charles directed the Beer Widow to the Vine (or, if you’re in the know, the Bull and Bladder), the Batham’s brewery tap in the West Midlands.

It’s a cracking pub, one of those places that has withstood every single trend, technological development and interior design fad of the last thirty years.  It has carpets.  And separate rooms.  Aged banquettes that create a barrier between groups but still allow those groups to eye each other up.  A hierarchy so clear that as you walk in for the first time, you immediately know which rooms are open to you as a stranger, and which are not.  And a random collection of brilliant and nonsensical stuff on the walls that could keep you gawking for hours.

I was quite nervous when I got my first pint of Batham’s.  It’s made with Fuggles and Goldings hops, and contains invert sugar for a bit of extra sweetness.  It tastes quite sweet. And very nice.

I’ve noticed in some great session beers that the balance between malt and hops is not just about sensible balance, neither one being too extreme.  It’s about the combination, the mix of malt sweetness and hop fruitiness that combine to create a kind of glowing, floral perfume that hovers just above your palate.  This may sound horrible, cloying, sickly and effeminate, but is actually the opposite of all those things.  And Bathams does this very well.

But detailed analysis of the flavour is beside the point – that’s not what this beer is about.  It’s a beer that can be drunk easily and yet is satisfying, and it’s a beer that brings a smile to your face.  It doesn’t overwhelm you – you don’t have the first sip and go, “My God, that’s awesome!”  But the more you like it, the more you drink.  And the more you drink, the more you like it.

It also comes in bottles:

and I got to bring a few home with me.

This is not to be taken for granted.  Because over the weekend that followed this Friday night session, the stories began to come out.

You can’t find many places that sell these bottles, they say.  We visited one pub that does, but allegedly you have to take your empties back if you want some more, meaning it’s very difficult to get onto the Bathams ladder in the first place.

On cask, demand always outstrips supply, they say.  There are only certain pubs that get it, and these are known to serious drinkers.  Stocking Bathams wins a landlord instant admiration.  Some of these pubs have been known to order an extra cask, and then sell it on at a profit, on the thriving Bathams black market that exists in the West Midlands.

Weeks later, when I opened my final bottle at home, I wrote, ‘When you drink Bathams, it just make you feel NICE.’

That might sound like the most facile thing a beer writer has ever written.  But I believe there is truth and beauty in its simplicity.

I’m hanging on to the empties.

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Funky Cool Medina

The day I finally finished Shakespeare’s Local and pressed ‘send’ to the publishers, I was combining my final proof read with a  few long overdue brewery visits.

I spent the morning and early afternoon in Ilkley, at the ambitious new brewery that’s turning heads after just two and a half years and already straining at the seams of the new brewery site they moved into last year.

They’re quite shrewd, brewing a range of beers spanning from the light session beers beloved of the archetypal Yorkshire drinker, through to some pretty kooky experimental beers.

No prizes for guessing what they wanted to brew when they invited both me and Melissa Cole to brew within a few days of each other.

This was a proper ‘Collabrew’ (that’s my new word) in which I got to have real input into what we were brewing.  Ilkley wanted to brew a dark saison.  We both love saison for the hints of spice and farmyard funkiness they offer.  The thought behind this brew was sod hints, let’s go for full expression.  So we used a saison yeast, lots of pale malt, a hint of crystal and a bit of torrefied wheat and dehusked carafa malt, aiming for a target strength of 6% ABV.

We then got a bit of the wort and started muddling different varieties of hop in the glass, trying out different combinations. The Ilkley chaps wanted to stick some New World hops in, and I was looking for something with an orangey nose to complement everything else we were about to bung in.  We settled on Saaz hops for bittering, and Amarillo and Summit for aroma.

Finally, near the end of the boil we added 2kg of dried orange peel, 300g of ground coriander, 150g of ground ginger and 60g of grains of paradise – an intense, aromatic peppercorn.

This was going to be a big beer, the kind of beer that would walk up to a bar and get served before you, even though it was your turn.  The kind of beer that, if it was a dog, and you took it for a walk, would pull you along disobediently, hunkering down and dragging you with its muscly forelegs.

When I tasted it after the boil, the spices didn’t quite punch me in the face, but they did bunch my collar in their fists and hold me up against the wall.  Taste memories of North Africa flashed through my brain, and I jokingly tweeted that I suspected we had just invented a new beer style – Moroccan Saison.  And so Medina was named – a beer to warm the heart on cold Saharan nights, a beer whose rugged boldness would not suffer fools.

It didn’t work out like that – at least, not quite.

No one quite knows what happened in the fermenter.  Wonderful things happen in fermenting vessels all the time, and our understanding of what and why is still hazy at best.

As it matured, our bold, spicy beer became smooth, sophisticated and urbane.  It took a degree, started reading the classics and listening to Mahler.  When it came out the other end, it was still big and powerful – it would still muscle to the bar and get served before you.  But when it did, it would say, “No, I believe this gentleman was here before me.”

The finished beer suggests exoticism and travel, but with a refined air.  It’s incredibly smooth and silky, more like a chocolate porter than a saison.  That must come from the dehusked carafa – unless someone bunged in a load of chocolate malt when no one was looking.  But it’s amazing what a difference it made given that this dark malt made up less than 5% of the total malt bill.

That smoothness opens out into a gentle, subtle but rounded fruitiness in the mouth, with a touch of vanilla.  And then, the spices build in the way they do in a very good curry – gentle at first at the back of the mouth, then slightly more assertive, a dry, peppery spice that gives the palate a definite but quite polite buzz.

Melissa brewed a similarly outlandish ‘rhubarb saison’ called Siberia, which I got to taste briefly at Craft Beer Co when my beer launched there a couple of weeks ago.  I was a little hazy by that point (Medina is 6% and very drinkable, and I always make the mistake of thinking I’m drinking less of beers like that by drinking halves) but I remember it being deliciously fruity and aromatic.  You can read a little more detail on that at Melissa’s blog.

I was very chuffed to hear that Medina had sold out before it had even left the fermenter, and it’s been getting great feedback from those people lucky enough to get hold of some – I managed to get another pint down at the new Cask Pub and Kitchen in Brighton at the weekend.

What I liked most about these experimental beers was the sense of fun that went with them.  We had a great time brewing them and I certainly had a lovely time drinking them.  They’re not the most ‘out there’ beers I’ve had in recent weeks – I’ll be talking more about some other ones very soon – but I’ve been really enjoying pushing the flavour boundaries.

There is a degree of cynicism about beers like this in some quarters, and doubtless there will be a few outraged trainspotters either denying that a Moroccan Saison could ever exist, or struggling to find the right place for it in beer’s ever-expanding taxonomy.  Sod them – it was a great beer to brew, a great beer to drink, and it makes people happy, so I’m happy too.

Doubtless there is a little bit of Emperor’s New Clothes around some experimental corners of beer production – as Tandleman recently averred.  But I’ve recently been enjoying both experiments such as this, and the joys of the traditional session pint.  There’s so much binary, black-and-white thinking in the beer world (even the sub-editors of the above piece misrepresented it as an attack on experimental beer, when if you read what I wrote, it’s patently not).  We all love talking about how beer is such a wonderfully diverse drink.  What on earth is the problem with diversity?  And what’s the problem with stretching that diversity further?  If it’s a bad beer, it’s a bad beer.  Maybe it’ll be a good one next time.

Thanks to Ilkley for allowing me to co-create a very nice one indeed – I hope they brew it again soon.

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Greene King and Bombardier to go head to head on the telly

Real ale is about to burst onto our screens in a big way.

The week before last, two of the UK’s biggest ale brands launched their new advertising campaigns to beer writers and trade journalists.  I was invited to one launch but, for some reason, not the other one the day after – even though seemingly everyone else who was at the first one was.  Please believe me that this in no way colours what I’m about to say about these two campaigns.  I’m bigger than that.  No, really, I am, honest.  But I tell you this so you can filter the following for any perceived prejudice.

Anyway, I used to work in advertising so this, for me, is in part going back to the day job.

The second event – the one I wasn’t invited to – was launching the next wave in the new campaign for Well’s Bombardier.  Now, I get the feeling that I’m going to come across as disliking this development a lot more than I actually do, so let me say some positive things about it first, and hopefully this will prevent a hit squad being despatched from Bedford – home of William Charles Bedford, ‘your dashing hero on the battlefield, with a caddish twinkle in his eye,’ according to the press release (I am at least still on their email distribution list – at least until they read this.)

Basically, what they’re doing is extending the campaign they launched last year, with Rik Mayall playing the Bombardier, drinking the beer and extolling its virtues with what Well’s & Youngs clearly hope will become a pub catchphrase: ‘Bang on!’  They’re going for a heavyweight promotion on Dave, the channel for blokes who like repeats of the programme Stewart Lee refers to as ‘Mock the Weak’.  Ten and fifteen second idents will frame peak time programmes.  I haven’t seen the idents because like I said, I wasn’t invited to the launch, and didn’t get to meet Rik Mayall, but the press release says ‘viewers can expect to see the Bombardier’s take on the English sense of humour, values, our love of pubs and our social habits.’

They’re spending £5m on this, which is great news for Bombardier and great news for ale too.  It’s the highest ever spend they’ve put behind the brand (but not the highest ever spend in the ale category, as the press release falsely claims).  Whatever your views on the beer and the campaign, this is brilliant because it helps propel ale into the mainstream, makes it more visible and more contemporary.  When I do focus groups, many people assume that if a brand is on telly it must be good, must be doing something right, and this leads to greater social currency.  So here Bombardier are helping ale look more modern (with some caveats, below).  It’s also a great sign of confidence – they wouldn’t spend this money if they didn’t think cask ale was in good shape and people were ready to consider it.

Secondly, they’ve got with the programme and done a Facebook page and taken the Bombardier on to Twitter, extending a true brand property and providing content which people can interact with.  That’s a good thing as far as marketing, brand building, and the saliency of real ale is concerned.


For me, this entire campaign feels like it’s aping lager ads of the seventies and eighties, and even lagers don’t behave like that any more.  Rik Mayall is reprising a character he played in Blackadder thirty years ago, in a slightly less funny way than it was then.  Is this really the way to make ale feel fresh, contemporary and appealing to new generations of drinkers?

To make my own mind up, I followed the link to the youtube channel at the bottom of the press release I was sent.  And I got this:

Woof woof! Bang Off, chaps!

The ads launch 16th April and run from 9pm to midnight weekdays for twelve months.

The other campaign is from Bombardier’s rival, Greene King.  Disliked by many readers of this blog and diehard ale drinkers in general, scorned for bland beers and nicknamed ‘Greed King’ for their sometimes voracious business practices, booed when they were runner-up Champion Beer of Britain a few years ago, they can sometimes come across as difficult to love, and have clearly been doing a bit of soul searching.

I think the results are a pleasant surprise.

Greene King IPA is the UK’s biggest cask ale brand.  It still only has a 7% market share – the diversity and fragmentation of the ale market is (most of the time) one of its main strengths. But GK IPA is, for better or worse, still the biggest brand.  I don’t tend to drink it myself, but clearly lots of people like it.  And like Magner’s does with cider, if it attracts people to real ale for the first time who then start to look around and trade up, that’s no bad thing.

In marketing theory, one classic strategy for the brand leader is to do a job that grows the whole market rather than trying to steal share form your competitors.  The theory is that if you’re already the biggest, advertising what’s good about the whole market means you benefit everyone else, but if the market grows proportionately then you’ll gain more in volume terms than everyone else does.  Most new entrants to any market tend to go for the biggest brands, so you’ll probably grow disproportionately, benefiting everyone but, most of all, yourself.

This is the strategy GK has chosen, and I think it’ll paid off.

They’ve created an ad that quite simply celebrates the joys of good cask beer in a good pub – not the joys of hops and malt and yeast, but the moment that beer – and only beer – can create.

This has always been what’s excited me most as a writer, and it’s lovely to see a brand that has wonga to spend and an ad agency with creative skill taking this aspect of beer and celebrating it.  It’s an ad for the pub as much as it is an advert for beer or Greene King IPA specifically, and I think it’s rather fucking wonderful:

I particularly like the opening, in the cellar – just enough beer craft for the mainstream viewer without getting too technical or boring.  Even if you don’t understand what you’re seeing, you get the impression of craft and care, the sense that this is something a bit more special than what you can buy in the supermarket.

The ad was shot in the Hornsey Tavern, north London, and the music is by a precocious eighteen year-old called Jake Bugg, who is to my ears like Ed Sheeran, only good.  The gaffer is an actor, but many of the people are real punters, sharing real beer moments.  The finished ad has been culled from about five hours of footage, the film crew just passing through the pub as people relaxed and shared a good time having a beer.  It’s the kind of positive image of beer and pubs the whole industry sorely needs more of.

GK is spending £4m behind this, and it’s breaking on 14th and 15th April, during the FA Cup semi-finals on ITV and ESPN.  It’s also going to be on Sky and Dave.

Coinciding with this, they also launched two new beers under the Greene King IPA brand: IPA Gold, a 4.1% golden ale, and IPA reserve, a 5.6% rich, mellow, fruity ale.  For anyone who drinks or works in a Greene King pub, these beers are welcome additions.  The golden ale is a golden ale, no better or worse than many in the market just now, while the reserve is in Fullers ESB territory, and dangerously drinkable.  They won’t set RateBeer alight, but they’re not meant to – that’s not what they’re for.  But they are quite drinkable beers that bring Greene King’s portfolio a bit closer to what drinkers want.

My only, obvious, quarrel is that, already under fire for calling a 3.6% session beer IPA, they’ve now brought out two new beers that are very different from the original, obviously not India Pale Ales in any shape or form, and called them India Pale Ales.  This reveals that as far as Greene King is concerned, IPA is a brand name and not a beer style.  I could just about defend the mainstream GK IPA because while it’s not a traditional IPA, IPA is an evolving style and in the mid-twentieth century this is what it was to most brewers and drinkers in the UK.  But by calling these new beers IPA rather than just ‘Greene King Blonde’ or ‘Greene King Reserve’, GK have created a needless rod for beer enthusiasts to beat them with – a silly own goal at a time when they’re doing some big things right.

GK has also launched an attractive Facebook page to support the campaign.

One tip to both brands: Facebook is an interactive medium.  If people ask you if it’s possible to buy Bombardier in North America or who did the music on the IPA ad, it’s good manners and good business sense to reply.  Don’t fall into the trap of bigger brands who pretend to be there on Facebook but don’t actually read or respond to comments, thereby actively alienating some of your biggest fans.  oh hang on – EDIT – GK actually did respond.

I’m anticipating many tiresome comments about how both these beers are shit, boring and bland, made by big corporations, and that it’s a bad thing they’re on TV.  My answer to that would be that these beers, and these ads, are not aimed at people who write beer blogs and drink in craft beer bars.   We’re fine – we don’t need to be told that real ale is a decent drink or that pubs are nice places to be.  No one who is already drinking great craft beer is going to suddenly start switching to Bombardier or Greene King IPA as a result of these ads.  The useful job that big brands can do is bring more novices into ale for the first time – and remind people how great pubs are.  With nearly £10m being spent advertising real ale over the next few months, this is fantastic news for beer as a whole – whatever you choose to drink yourself.

Cheers to both of them.  Especially the second one.