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If you really care about the rise in liver disease, read this

Gin Lane

So the main beer-related headline this morning (given that George Osborne deliberately misled the nation over his 5% alcohol duty rise by saying there was ‘no change’ to beer duty, which most people don’t realise means the punitive duty escalator remains in place) is that deaths by liver disease rocketed by 25% between 2001 and 2009.

This is shocking stuff, and any responsible drinks writer or commentator needs to acknowledge the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption.

What’s actually positive about this news is that alcohol isn’t being blamed for every liver disease death – in the past, the Office of National Statistics has, for the sake of simplicity, recorded every liver disease statistic as being alcohol related, even while admitting this is inaccurate.  At least in this new survey, they admit that it’s only one factor, along with obesity and hepatitis.  But this reveals that alcohol actually contributes to a sizeable chunk – 37% of people who die of liver disease in their forties essentially drink themselves to death, for example.

If alcohol is going to continue to be the life enhancing treat that it is for most responsible drinkers, we need to understand why it becomes something much darker for a significant minority.

Which is why it doesn’t exactly help that every story I’ve seen on this so far this morning is illustrated by – yep, you guessed it – a pint of beer.

This is not me being defensive as a beer writer.  This is me being angry at ignorant media creating a grossly inaccurate picture.

So liver disease increased by 25% from 2001 to 2009.

OK, here are some more numbers.

Over the same period as this rise, beer consumption FELL by 18%.

Most of the beer market is lager, and within this figure, premium lager (around 5% ABV) fell by 18%, while standard lager (around 3.5-4.4% ABV) fell by only 4%.  So less beer is being sold, and within that, the steepest decline is for higher ABV drinks.

Kind of makes it hard to blame beer for a 25% rise in alcohol-related liver disease, no?

At the same time, wine consumption in the UK rose by 8%, and the average ABV of wine rose from 12% ABV to 13.5%.

Want to know what happened to spirits consumption between 2001 and 2009?

Up by 18%.*

As I proved in my last post, I’m no mathematician.  And I do know the difference between correlation and causation.  But it seems to me, reading these figures, that there is a very strong correlation indeed between the rise in alcohol-related liver disease and a trend for people to switch from beer to stronger drinks.

Beer, once again, is being used as the scapegoat.  No doubt it makes sense to some, when we see that the biggest rises are among poor people, especially men, especially in deprived parts of the north, and the media stereotype of beer drinkers remains that of the northern working class male.  But this stereotype is inaccurate, as I’ve pointed out many times before.

Liver disease is increasing because people are switching from beer to stronger drinks.  We already know this though, because this has been true of every major alcoholism epidemic in history.  In the gin epidemic of the eighteenth century, beer was part of the solution, not the problem, as the immortal cartoons by Hogarth show.  It should be seen as that today.

And there’s another factor going on which NEVER gets written about (apart from by my excellent co-writer in this area, Phil Mellows).  Most alcohol consumption takes place among affluent southerners.  Statistically, the wealthier you are, the more you drink.  And yet the poorer you are, the more likely you are to die of drink-related liver disease.

A child could see that alcohol-related mortality therefore has nothing to do with overall consumption.  And yet the government and NHS strategy remains firmly founded on the fundamental belief that the best way to reduce alcohol-related harm is to reduce overall consumption (by measures such as minimum pricing etc).

Not only does this approach stigmatise and punish responsible drinkers, it does nothing to help those drinking harmfully.  Put up the price of booze, and an alcoholic will spend less on food, and so on.  There’s overall pattern of evidence to suggest that reducing overall consumption is the best way to reduce harm.

So what is it that makes poor drinkers in the north more likely to drink themselves to death than affluent drinkers in the south, who on average drink more?  Oh, that’s too hard.  That might involve addressing the societal, cultural and economic problems that are the REAL reasons some people drink harmfully.

Much easier simply to blame beer.

Beer Street

* All figures from the BBPA’s Statistical Handbook 2011

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Why beer duty numbers just don’t add up – and what YOU can do about it

Soon he’ll be the only person the country who can afford a pint
It’s nearly budget time again.  On 23rd March, the Government will yet again add inflation plus two per cent to the tax on beer.  This will bring the total tax rise on beer since the duty escalator was introduced in 2008 to about 45%.  The Conservative government has committed to the duty escalator until 2014. Even if they don’t add any other taxes – and we can’t rule that out – what was already the second highest duty rate in Europe will almost double within a decade.
It makes no sense.  This is a Treasury measure to raise revenue, not a Department of Health measure to reduce drinking.  But word reaches me from one source that an MP very close to David Cameron has admitted that they are now into diminishing returns – each time the duty escalator goes on, the total amount of revenue goes down, because it’s killing volume so much.
I’ve written a lot before now about how the duty escalator is hurting pubs.  But the other day I was with a family brewer who is seeing their business shafted by this relentless punishing of the industry.  I hadn’t thought it through before, but it goes like this:
Say inflation is 4%.  Which it is.  So the duty on beer goes up by 4% + 2% = 6%.
But that’s just the duty – inflation is still 4% on top of that.  Which means the cost to the brewer of making beer is also going up by 4%.
So if a brewer just wants to stay still, with no increase in profit at all, the duty escalator means the price of their beer must go up by 10%.
The public won’t accept this.  The supermarket and the pub trade won’t accept this.  So the brewer has to take a hit and see his profit margins sliced.  Every year this happens, those slices get thinner and thinner.  
To make matters worse, that 4% inflation figure is an average across everything.  Some of a mid-size brewer’s biggest costs are transport, energy, packaging and barley – all of which are increasing much more rapidly than the headline rate of inflation.  With the above maths in place, there’s absolutely no question of them being able to do anything other than take a hit on these costs.
If this carries on, there soon won’t be a reason for many brewers to stay in business – some could make more money demolishing their breweries and turning the space into car parks, which is what’s happening to Tetley’s.  
This equation impacts different sized businesses in different ways.  Microbrewers aren’t hit as hard because they get tax relief if they brew below a certain volume.  So that’s good news for fans of eclectic, interesting beer.  But they still face the same business pressures, and many use this tax relief to sell their beer to pubs cheaper than bigger brewers can, further shrinking the profitability of beer overall.
Multinational brewers are hit hardest, with their profits reduced to an average now of around 1%.  They’ll survive as businesses because they’re big enough to invest in developing markets.  South America, Asia, Africa and Russia are the countries that interest these guys now.  You might say good riddance to them, but they’re not going to abandon Europe and America – they’re just going to relentlessly cut costs to remain competitive – lowering the strength of their beers, using cheaper ingredients and compromised processes, lowering the quality of mainstream beer even further.
And then in the middle you’ve got Greene King, Fullers, Wells & Young’s and Marstons and so on, and the family brewers like Black Sheep, Batemans, Robinsons etc.  These brewers are too big to get duty relief, and too small to go anywhere else.  They’re being squeezed to death, facing a situation where it’s hard for them to actually make beer at a profit.
If you’re a blinkered fan of micros, you might welcome this.  You might say you don’t need boring brown beer and that pubs would be better places if they were only stocked by micros.  But I’m afraid you’re wrong.  Who do you think installs cellar equipment and services it, guaranteeing the quality of all beers on the bar?  Who do you think puts most of the hand pumps on the bar that the micros use?  Who do you think offers staff training and quality management services?  Who do you think microbrewers phone up when they want to start bottling beers but don’t have a bottling line of their own?  Who do you think funds brewing research and laboratory services?  There are many wonderful things about microbrewers, but the whole appeal of them is that they are small and nimble.  They don’t have huge staff to support so they can take risks.  They don’t have huge pub estates so they don’t have to invest in lots of cellar management resource.  However much you love them, and I do, they couldn’t survive on their own – as they’d be the first to admit.
This middle tier is getting shafted the hardest by the relentless duty escalator.  They are small to medium sized manufacturing businesses, a rarity in Britain these days, and yet they’re the very businesses David Cameron believes will save the economy.  As he said last year:
“There’s only one strategy for growth we can have now and that is rolling up our sleeves and doing everything possible to make it easier for businesses to grow, to invest, to take people on.  Back small firms. Boost enterprise. Be on the side of everyone in this country who wants to create jobs, and wealth and opportunity.”
He said that.  We can’t let him get away with doing the direct opposite to one of the best manufacturing industries we have.
I’ve hated the Tories with venom ever since I grew up during the miner’s strike and watched them turn the apparatus of the state – including the army and secret service – on their own citizens and destroy communities including the one in which I grew up.  But this issue is not a party political one.  This cursed duty escalator was introduced by a Labour government, and last week Andrew Griffiths, the Tory MP for Burton-on-Trent and current chair of the Parliamentary Beer Group, introduced an Early Day Motion to debate the duty escalator in Parliament.
But we have it in our power to force another debate.  
Last week Hobgoblin beer launched a campaign to get 100,000 signatures on an e-petition which would force the issue to be debated in Parliament again.  The wording of the petition is as follows:

Stop the beer duty escalator

Responsible department: Her Majesty’s Treasury

Every year, the beer tax escalator increases the tax on beer by 2% above the rate of inflation, thus adding considerably more pressure on the British pub, the cornerstone of many of our communities. Removing the beer duty escalator at the next budget will help keep beer more affordable and go a long way to supporting the institution that is – the great British pub.  Going to the pub is a core British tradition and so is enjoying great beer. If you want to continue enjoying your fresh pint in your local pub then it’s crucial that you support our campaign to grind the beer duty tax escalator to a halt.  If we don’t show our support for the great British pub, we risk losing more pubs and more jobs within our local communities.  Support great beer in the great British pub and sign our e-petition now….. British Pubs Need You.
There are 135,000 members of CAMRA.  And there are millions of people who are not CAMRA members who are passionate about great pubs and great beer.  If we can’t get 100,000 signatures on this petition, we don’t deserve an affordable pint.
Sign it. Now. 
And then make your friends sign it.
It’s not as if it take any effort – it’ll take you about a minute, and the link is here.  And while it probably won’t do anything this year, it just might have an effect next year.  They’re not making any money off this; they’re killing the brewing industry; they’re threatening thousands of jobs in pubs, and they’re making our pints almost unaffordable.  
This is politics – Governments can’t be seen to U-turn without good reason, but this is a chance to provide that reason, to allow them to scrap a misguided measure that benefits no one.  It makes sense whatever you drink, and whatever your politics.

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Yeeeessssss, it’s in(n)!

The George Inn, Borough High St, SE1. A while ago.

After a couple of false starts (or false endings I suppose) I’m back in the real world.  On Thursday I pressed ‘send’ on the manuscript of my new book, and this weekend my editor becomes the third person in the world to read it (after me and the Beer Widow).  From here it’s full steam ahead with edits (hopefully not too many) cover designs, bound proofs out to reviewers and so on, leading up to the launch later this year.

I started this book almost a year ago.  Then in October I had my laptop stolen.  It wasn’t backed up (it is now) and I lost every last bit of work I’d done on the book.  I started making my notes again from scratch on 7th October.  I sent the book off on 1st March.  I hope I never have to work to that kind of timetable again, but I think I got away with it.

It’s been confirmed that the book will be called SHAKESPEARE’S LOCAL: Five Centuries of History Seen From One Extraordinary Pub.  It tells the story of the George Inn, Southwark, South London, and everything that has happened in it, to it and around it, and the people who have eaten, drunk, stayed, worked, performed and fought there.

It’s not really a beer book as such – it’s a bit of a departure on that score (though there is one chapter that centres on one of the most famous breweries the world has ever seen).  But it is a book about pubs – not just this one pub, but all pubs, especially inns.  These days we use words like ‘inn’, ‘tavern’, ‘alehouse’ and ‘pub’ interchangeably, but at one time the differences were so stark they were enshrined in law.  One aspect of the book is the story of how inns were essentially the lynchpins for Britain’s entire economy, facilitating the movement of goods, money and people that enabled both the Industrial Revolution and the growth of a mercantile class.  Before we had town halls, municipal buildings, assembly rooms, theatres and concert halls, the inn was the only building in town with large meeting rooms and spaces, and it performed all these functions.

It’s also the story of Southwark – an extraordinary town that was once the centre of the world.  London Bridge was the only bridge across the Thames from Roman times until 1750.  Anything coming to the capital from the south east or Continental Europe came up Borough High Street and past the George – that’s why this pub was just one of twenty or so inns along a half mile stretch of road, along with innumerable alehouses and taverns.  The bottleneck across the bridge meant many people simply stayed in Southwark.  It was just outside London’s jurisdiction and the Citys’ laws didn’t apply, so Southwark became home to nonconformists of every stripe, fugitives and refugees from across the world, villains, rogues, whores and wasters, most of whom popped in for a pint (all except the puritans, who dismissed pubs as the ‘blockhouses of the Devil’.)

The story of the George is the story of the last survivor of these great inns.  It was never the biggest, most famous, most beautiful or important – even though it was big, famous, beautiful and important.  Chaucer chose the inn next door to the south as his start point for the Canterbury Tales.  Both Dickens and Shakespeare chose the inn next door to the north as the setting for key scenes in their respective works.  But they all knew the George, and the George is the one that survived, carrying the legacy of what was once the most important street of pubs in the world.

The story of the George is also the story of some bizarre characters who once drunk there.  There’s Sir John Mennis, Comptroller of Charles II’s Royal Navy and inventory of a literary genre I’ve chosen to call Stuart-Era Fart Poetry.  There’s John Taylor, the Water Poet, who once rowed from London to the Isle of Sheppey in a boat made from paper with oars of salt cod tied to sticks.  There’s Shakespeare, Dickens, Chaucer, Dick Turpin, the Sugababes, Samuel Pepys, Philip ‘the most miserable man in the world’ Stubbes, Samuel Johnson, a monkey riding a horse, and possibly the greatest pub landlady who ever lived.

But the main character is the pub itself – just a pub, and so much more, like all pubs are.  When you see what it’s been through, the survival of the George makes a mockery of anyone who says pubs are dying out.

That’s the gist of what I told my publisher’s sales force when I had to present the book to them a couple of weeks ago.  It wasn’t easy – I had to follow a debut novelist whose book is already tipped for great things and is in discussions about movie rights – and Rastamouse.

Wha’ g’wan? I share a publisher with this mouse.

The creators of Rastamouse had them a-rockin’ and a-rhymin’, grown men and women squealing with delight.  “Follow that,” said my publisher.  I tried.  It seemed to go down well.

So well, in fact, that they moved the publication date.  Shakespeare’s Local will now be published on 8th November, right in the middle of the peak Christmas book buying period, competing with comedians’ memoirs, ‘Katie’ ‘Price’ ‘novels’ and glossy cookbooks.  The cover design hasn’t been finalised yet, but even from early designs it’s going to look like a very nice present to buy someone.

So now, finally, I’m back to blogging.  I’ve got loads to write about as I reacquaint myself with the beer world and start leaving the house again.

I hope you all played nice while I was gone.  It’s good to be back.

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Odessa in London

Almost a year ago now I went down to Otley Brewing in South Wales and did a brew with them.  Unlike many collaborative brews, they made me come up with the recipe, select the hops and everything.  When I co-created Brew Dog’s Avery Brown Dredge with Zak and Mark, they did most of the work and I just said things like, “Yes. very good.” This time I was on my own.  Nowhere to hide.  (There’s a nice video of the brew day of you follow the link above).

Inspired by Martin Dickie’s ginger nuts (we were very hungover) I decided I wanted to brew an imperial stout with ginger.  And chocolate.  And then mature it in whisky casks for a year.You may say that’s showing off.  I say it was cruising for a fall.  As I kept chucking handfuls of crystallised ginger and Belgian chocolate drops into the copper when Nick Otley wasn’t looking (unaware that Nick was doing the same when I wasn’t looking) I was genuinely worried it wouldn’t work.

For ten months, some of this beer sat in bourbon barrels and some in mead barrels.  Nick finally tasted it last weekend and after he stopped saying ‘wow!’ (which took a while) he said it was pitch black, and very warming.

Tomorrow you get a chance to see if we pulled it off or whether I should stick to writing rather than brewing.  Odessa Imperial Stout is launching in four London pubs, and Nick and I are touring them to give it a try in each one.  Each pub gets either the whisky or the mead finish, randomly chosen.  So if you can, it’s worth trying at least three pubs.  The beer will of course be on sale all day until it runs out.  But if you want to see me or Nick (save the difficult questions for him) our rough timetable is as follows:

1.       The White Horse, Parsons Green, between 1pm & 2pm
2.       The Rake, Borough, between 3pm & 4pm
3.       The Jolly Butchers, Stoke Newington, between 5pm & 6pm
4.       The Southampton Arms, Kentish Town, between 7pm & 8pm

I’ll be tweeting events for as long as I can focus.  Though after the first couple of pints of this stuff, I may well ask someone to take my phone off me.

See you there!

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Some thoughts on writing about beer history

As I emerge from the British Library, blinking like a mole in the winter sun, I see Martyn Cornell has been doing what he enjoys best, demolishing a passing historical claim that someone else has made.

There was a spat before Christmas about the excellent Oxford Companion to Beer.  Many in the beer blogosphere were queueing up to find errors and cite them as proof that the book is worthless, or at the very least, deeply flawed.  This turned into a rather worrying witch hunt where almost any positive mention of the OCB online was rooted out and lambasted (one beer writer was even attacked on his Facebook page for posting that he was looking forward to reading it).

My response to this was along the lines of ‘of course there are errors – but if you take the thing as a whole, it’s a great piece of work’.  This was (mis)interpreted by some as me saying that errors didn’t matter, and the pursuit of truth, of fact, in beer history was unimportant.

That is not what I meant at all.  If I did mean that, I wouldn’t, for example, have spent all day yesterday in the London Metropolitan Archives reading through letters sent between brewers Flower & Sons and their lawyers regarding their taking over the lease of the George Inn, Southwark – something that will surely take only a line or two in my new book, but which I took a thousand words of notes on, because I want to make sure I get it absolutely right.

What I do think, though, after spending nearly a year doing research that is as forensic and detailed as I can possibly do on the history of coaching inns, pubs in general and one pub in particular, is that some who are interested in the history of beer are in danger of strangling the study of it by imposing standards that are too strict, that are tighter than any proper academic historian would insist upon.

If you’re not that bothered about the study of beer history, please stop reading now, because you’re going to get really bored if you don’t.

First, a few caveats:

One, I greatly admire the work that people like Martyn Cornell and Ron Pattinson do.  I know from great experience myself that it’s not exactly easy, fun or rewarding to trawl through historical documents in search of the truth.  It’s much easier to simply cite what some bloke said in a book eighty years ago without checking where he got it from.  Standards of beer scholarship are improving, and people like Martyn and Ron are playing a significant role in this.

Two, I don’t want to excuse errors – where they are in fact errors, as opposed to differing interpretations.  And I’m not here to defend the OCB’s entry on the yard of ale.  I actually agree with Martyn that the original yard of ale entry in OCB looks like it’s wrong, though I believe that it’s the result of a simple confusion with the ‘stirrup cup’, which is a similar shape to the yard, but smaller – still wrong and in need of correction, but not exactly the biggest controversy ever to rear its beery head.

Three, although this post was prompted by Martyn’s latest, it shouldn’t be read (just) as a criticism of Marytn – he makes points similar to those below towards the end of his post, and I agree with a lot of what he says there.  What follows has been inspired by Martyn’s post – and other comments he’s made previously – rather than being a direct rebuttal.  I’m sure he would agree with much of what follows.

With those out of the way, my main beef is this: there seems to be a growing view that if there isn’t definite, written, primary source proof of something, than we cannot assert that it is true in an historical context, and we shouldn’t be saying it.

I’m sorry, but that’s just not right.  If real historians behaved like this, we wouldn’t have any history at all.

Having come fresh from the coalface, here’s how written historical sources work: since the mid-twentieth century and the age of mass communication, you can find lots of references to pretty much anything if you know where to look.  The biggest problem facing future historians looking at the early 21st century will be too much material relating to any subject, not too little.

Go back to the nineteenth century, and it’s a bit harder.  There are newspapers and magazines – quite a lot of them – and if you’re lucky enough to find databases that have them as word-searchable PDFs, you can fillet all mentions of your chosen subject from tons of last century’s chip paper within minutes.  The trouble is, you know how now, the mainstream press don’t write much about beer?  Well, they didn’t much then, either.  For example, over 99.9% of the 16,000 mentions of ‘India Pale Ale’ in the Burley Collection of 18th and 19th century newspapers are in the classified ads section, and while the first few you look at are very revealing (that’s where I discovered the earliest actual mention of ‘India Pale Ale’ for example) after that, they’re all the same.

Go back before that, and most of the population were illiterate.  Newspapers die out altogether when you reach the seventeenth century.  Now it gets trickier.  There’s the odd diarist whose work has survived, which is why if you read anything historical about the seventeenth century (including my new book) you will unfailingly discover what John Evelyn and Samuel Pepys thought about the subject at hand.

Before that, anything that the Church had direct involvement in, you’re laughing, because they kept copious records of everything.  Anything the monarch did, you’re on safe ground.  But social history?  Stuff that everyday people did?  That gets tricky.  There are legal records if your subject got into trouble.  But unless the Church or the law were interested, written records start to become very thin on the ground.  You’re relying on diarists, the odd pamphleteer (who usually had a particular view on his subject – many of our best descriptions of Elizabethan alehouses come from Puritans who thought they were the ‘nests of Satan’) and the occasional, isolated traveller or chronicler, and you kind of have to go with what those individuals say.

In terms of tangible fact, this is then supplemented by archaeological evidence.  This is incredibly useful.  But foodstuffs, clothing and almost anything else soft and perishable haven’t survived.

Our accurate record of what Elizabethan theatres looked like inside rests on a one page description and a drawing done by a Swiss traveller in 1594 – the rebuilt Globe Theatre relied on this, and the partial foundations of the original.  There are three surviving portraits which we think are William Shakespeare, and scant references to him in legal documents.  There isn’t even a definitely agreed version of his complete works, as whole plays were rarely copied.  Bill Bryson set out to write a book on Shakespeare that just stuck to the known facts.  It’s less than 200 pages long, and he’s padded it out with all sorts of more general stuff about Elizabethan England.  And this is Shakespeare – not some pub, brewery or drinking custom.

So when primary source stuff gets thin, what do you do?

You do not ‘make things up’.

But you do become flexible.

Martyn regularly pours scorn on historical claims that are made long after the fact.  But the first real account of the Battle of Hastings (leaving aside the Bayeux Tapestry) was written by William of Malmesbury over a century after to happened, and historians accept it as definitive.  Historians haven’t always provided academic references and footnotes – that doesn’t mean their work is invalid.  Also, when most people were illiterate, much history was handed down orally before someone put it to paper.  Inevitably, this introduces an element of Chinese Whispers.  But it’s that or nothing – and academic historians, while not always accepting such accounts as gospel (now there’s an interesting example) will usually at least take the gist of it to be true, or use it as a guide.  So while I’m not saying (because I don’t believe) that the yard of ale was invented for stage coach drivers, I am arguing that the fact that this claim wasn’t made until the 1950s is not on its own sufficient grounds to dismiss it.

Martyn’s other maxim is along the lines of ‘the first law of history is don’t assume’.  I’d like to see where these universally agreed laws of history are written down, and have a look at what the others are, because in the history I’ve been reading – mostly books written by academics who work in history departments in reputable universities – educated, reasoned assumptions are being made all the time.  ‘Could’, ‘might’, ‘perhaps,’, ‘possibly’ and ‘maybe’ are some of the most popular words in academic history.  Where I would agree with Martyn 100% is that if it is a ‘could’ or a ‘might’, any writer – especially one working on something as illustrious as the OCB – has an obligation to make this clear rather than writing ‘was’ or ‘did’, and this is a sin of mine that I’ve now resolved to fix. But I’d argue that this is the main area where standards need to be improved.  The simple ‘there’s no written evidence so we must assume it’s wrong’ approach simply is not how history works.

These issues have particular relevance for the study of beer and pubs, because at the time, a lot of this shit just didn’t get written down.  Whenever the yard of ale was invented, and for whatever purpose, no one whose work survives thought it worth recording.  So what are you going to do?  It obviously was invented by someone, at some point, so we are not wrong to speculate on what did happen.

If we don’t, we reduce history to virtually nothing.  And we have to look in a broader context.  That first mention of ‘India Pale Ale’ came at least seventy years after strong, hoppy pale had been exported to the Indian market – so how can we assert when this beer called ‘IPA’ first appeared?

The now pretty-much dismissed claim that George Hodgson began exporting pale ale to India in 1785 is based on this being the date it was first advertised in the Calcutta Gazette.  But the reason it wasn’t advertised before then is not that the beer didn’t exist in India, but that the Calcutta Gazette didn’t.  So when did Hodsgon first export his beer?

Another useful example for me is the story that IPA was first introduced to Britain in 1827 when a ship bound for India was shipwrecked off Liverpool, the casks washed up on the beach, and were auctioned by the ship’s insurance company, and the locals loved the beer and started demanding it at home.  Martyn has dismissed this as ‘myth’ because the claim was made fifty years after the fact, and it’s not mentioned anywhere else.  He says it never happened. Now, if we’re talking about how IPA was introduced to Britain, I totally agree.  A quick look at Peter Matthias’s brilliant brewing history shows that Bass and Allsopp were advertising pale ales domestically in the early 1820s.  In the 1830s, IPA became popular in Britain among families returning from India.  Hodgson, while being squeezed out of the Indian market, saw an opportunity back home and started advertising his beer as the taste of India.  But to say the shipwreck never happened?  That’s an even bolder claim than the original assertion.  Visit any Cornish coastal pub, for example, and you’ll find walls decorated with facsimiles of posters advertising auctions of cargo from shipwrecks from the early nineteenth century.  They happened all the time – surely at least one of these auctions would have included India-bound beer.  I’m certain that the 1827 shipwreck did happen, that India-bound beer was sold to Scousers and that they loved it.  After all, why would anyone simply make up such a story from their imagination?  But this is not how IPA was introduced to Britain.  It’s an important distinction in how we read historical data, how we interpret it.

Writing history is all about interpretation, and we have to make assumptions, especially when studying the history of the beer and pubs.  For example, I will be claiming that inn-yard theatre happened in the George Inn, Southwark, despite a complete lack of evidence that it did.  Why?  Because there are records of it happening in inn-yards across London and all over the country.  It often happened when there was a big fair.  It happened in larger inn-yards.  The George had  a large inn-yard.  Southwark Fair was one of the biggest fairs in the country.  Plays happened in the yard of the Queens Arms just down the road.  Therefore, I can assume, with a high degree of confidence, that plays also happened in the George.

One final point – and forgive me if this sounds defensive.  As a historian, you have an obligation to be as thorough in your research as you can be.  But as a writer aiming at a mainstream audience, you have an obligation to be as readable and interesting as you can be.  For the mainstream writer, in any discipline, it’s a balance between the two, and Bryson’s Shakespeare is a perfect example of how to do it brilliantly.  Just because the detail isn’t on the page in front of you, doesn’t mean it’s not there.

At the end of Martyn’s yard of ale post he gives a brilliant acknowledgement that we cannot research every single last fact back to primary sources, so I don’t think we’re that far apart in the overall scheme of things.

But please – even on the big stuff, sometimes, just because there is no primary source, that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.  Sorry, but that’s not how history works.


If you’ve read this far, then you’re obviously pretty interested in beer history.  So I’d just like to give a plug to the Brewery History Society.  Membership is only £15 a year, and you get a lot for your money. Martyn is on the editorial board so he would definitely agree with me on this!

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The Rules of Drinking

There’s light at the end of the tunnel.  Switching metaphors at the points, if it were a loaf of bread, you’d just be able to see it start to rise.
It’s been a very long three months, but on NYE I printed off a rough, shaky first draft of my next book.  The chapters that aren’t quite finished are bloody awful.  The chapters that are finished are pretty good – or at least, my long-suffering editor and wife think so.  And I have two weeks left to kick, bitch-slap, coax, polish, persuade, trick and massage the rest of it into shape.
This week, then, represents a partial return to the blogosphere.  Don’t try to pretend you missed me, now.
I’m ashamed to say my first post-book post is a shameless plug, but it is for something I think you’ll like.  
Last May I spent an afternoon in the Jolly Butchers with a BBC film crew.  I’d just about forgotten about it, and then I got a call this morning to say that the programme is finally going out this week.
It’s a Timeshift documentary called The Rules of Drinking, and it charts our relationship with booze, particularly since the Second World War.  Me and a chap called Iain Gately, whose book on the History of Drink you should have on your shelves, are the two main contributors, only you’re spared having to watch much of me by some fantastic archive footage they’ve found to go over the things we’re talking about.
Here’s the blurb, from BBC4:
Timeshift digs into the archive to discover the unwritten rules that have governed the way we drink in Britain.
In the pubs and working men’s clubs of the forties and fifties there were strict customs governing who stood where. To be invited to sup at the bar was a rite of passage for many young men, and it took years for women to be accepted into these bastions of masculinity. As the country prospered and foreign travel became widely available, so new drinking habits were introduced as we discovered wine and, even more exotically, cocktails.
People began to drink at home as well as at work, where journalists typified a tradition of the liquid lunch. Advertising played its part as lager was first sold as a woman’s drink and then the drink of choice for young men with a bit of disposable income. The rules changed and changed again, but they were always there – unwritten and unspoken, yet underwriting our complicated relationship with drinking.
The waspish and lovely Grace Dent gave the programme a fantastic write-up in the Guardian last Saturday,  acknowledging that there is such a thing as binge drinking, without being judgemental about it or trying to build it to a point of hysteria.  She concludes:

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Brew Dog London opens!

Blimey – a look at my Wikio ranking (if anyone still looks at Wikio rankings) shows what happens when you don’t blog for six weeks…

In case you’ve not been following, the reason I seem to have given up blogging is that I have to focus on my new book.  It’s going well: I’ve written about 45,000 words (about 140 pages) so far, but with a mid-January deadline I won’t be having much of a Christmas, and I won’t be blogging too often before it’s finished.

But I just wanted to do a quick post because I went to the journalist’s launch of Brew Dog’s new London bar last night in Camden, North London.

And it’s really just to reiterate what I said when I visited their Edinburgh bar in the summer, and express my delight that they’ve opened one a bit closer to my house.

No brewer divides opinion and stirs up as much controversy as Brew Dog.  And they do that deliberately.  Sometimes I write to slag off their childish pranks, sometimes to praise them.  About two years ago half the blogosphere was devoted to discussion of their antics (oh, and their beers) and I’ve read some people say they gave up reading blogs because they were sick of reading about Brew Dog.

But the company is four years old now and maturing rather nicely.  And the bars – which are starting to spread to many major UK cities – really are excellent.

Purists will be upset that they don’t do any cask beers at all, but this would be a good experiment: if you’re prepared to be open-minded, it’s worth going along and challenging the keg offering to deliver.  I think there’s something there for everyone.  Last night I was talking to someone who writes for London Drinker, CAMRA London’s magazine, and we were disagreeing about keg beer – he was saying he could still taste the gas in the beers he was drinking and that he didn’t like that and wished they were available on cask.  But later, he tried some of the stronger beers and came back to tell me they were excellent.

So there’s a great range on offer.  And the other thing I love about Brew Dog bars is that when I walk in, and I feel a little bit old and that the bar might be too cool for school, this is dispelled as soon as I actually get to the bar.  Brew Dog bars could so easily be too cool for school, and they’re not.  They’re unpretentious and run by people with a genuine passion for beer, a passion they want to spread.

Finally, I went here directly from a new ‘bar and kitchen’ (ugh!) run by a reasonably large pub operator, that’s moving with the times by stocking an interesting range of craft beers that will be familiar to geeks but you really don’t see in many places at all.  That’s to be welcomed.  But £4.25 for a pint of cask Meantime Pale Ale (4.2% ABV), brewed less then ten miles away, was taking the fucking piss.  By contrast, the prices at Brew Dog were perfectly reasonable for what you were getting.

Gotta leave it there – got to go and write about Princess Margaret and the Bishop of Southwark having a lock in.

But if you’re in London, go to Brew Dog Camden.  And of you’re not, don’t worry – a Brew Dog bar will probably be opening a bit closer to you sooner than you think.

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Someone is wrong on the internet.

Add caption

No time to blog at the moment as I struggle to get back on track with my book.  But this is all I have to say anyway.

Thanks to my best mate Chris for first sending me this a while back, last time someone was wrong on the internet.  And kudos to the original cartoonist, whoever that may be – the image has been repeated so often I wasn’t able to find out.

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Blogging, ethics and payola – what is OK?

As beer blogging matures as a medium there are an increasing number of discussions on what constitutes ethical blogging.  Is it OK to write about a brewery’s beers if they’ve taken you on a tour or sent you free product? Or if you’ve done some kind of consultancy for them?

I’ll come back to these in a minute – different bloggers have different points of view, and there are many shades of grey.

But I’ve recently been approached and asked to participate in one activity that, by any standards, is not OK at all.  It’s ethically wrong.  In fact, it is probably illegal.

Two weeks ago, I received an email from a man called Barry Sonders who works for an agency called Translation, some kind of PR/communications agency based in New York.  Barry’s email read as follows:

Hey Pete, 

I’m working with a beer brand that is looking to “seed” some stories
on blogs like yours about a new beer that is being released. 

I was wondering what the cost would be for me if I wanted to seed
1 story a week for a month. Basically, what I mean by seeding is 
that you’d blog or someone would write something saying… “I heard this
beer is X% alcohol content, etc”… 

Let me know if this is something you’d be interested in doing and again, 
if so, what is the price tag associated with that. 



Now there was no way I was ever going to agree to this, and I immediately decided to write this blog post about it.   But before I did so, I wanted to be better informed.  Firstly, I wrote back to Barry to see if I could find out what brand was trying to persuade me to sacrifice my integrity in this fashion:

Hi Barry, 

It kind of depends on the brand, to be honest.  Are you able to reveal which beer or brewer?


Barry, seemingly, could not be drawn that easily:

To be honest, I can’t right now. It’s a major brand, definitely not in the craft beer arena
or of a mass audience, middle america appeal. 

However, there was a link to Translation’s website at the bottom of his email.  I followed this link, and found a client list that included Coors among a list of reputable companies such as P&G and Johnson & Johnson.

So I contacted Kristy at MolsonCoors UK, who immediately replied that she was ‘appalled’ by this proposal, and contacted MillerCoors in the US (Coors is in a different JV over there) to see if this was something they knew about.  She got this reply from Pete Marino at MillerCoors HQ:

This has nothing to do with MillerCoors or any of our brands.  Translation does not do any work for MillerCoors, nor have they ever. They did at one time work for legacy Coors Brewing Company and they have the Coors logo on their website under the title “brands they have influenced…”. This doesn’t mean those brands are active clients and I can assure you we don’’t work with Translation.  I am not sure who they are representing here, but… we don’t have any association with Barry or Translation and we do not condone this behavior.  

Further down the email trail between Coors people, someone suggests the whole thing might be a hoax, as there are certainly no plans for a new US beer launch by MillerCoors at the moment.
I wanted to make all this very clear before moving on, because this is serious shit, and it’s important to state that whichever brand it is, it’s nothing to do with MolsonCoors or MillerCoors, who object to such practices on both legal and ethical grounds.  (I only mention this in detail because if you Google Translation’s website, you would think it was Coors).
Personally, whatever your views on free beer, hospitality etc (and I will come back to that) what’s happening here is that I am being offered money to blog views and opinions about a beer as if they are my own, when they are not.  By taking money it becomes advertising, and I am being asked to present it as though it is not advertising – clearly misleading my readers, and being dishonest in my writing.
I would never do that, for three reasons.  One – integrity – I have some.  Two – career practicality – if I did this, and someone found out that I’d done it, no one would ever trust anything I wrote ever again. My writing career would be over.  And three – it is probably illegal.  It certainly breaks any general journalistic and blogging standards of behaviour.
To get a clearer picture on this last point, I contacted both the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) and the Advertising Standards Authority.
The NUJ admitted that it’s still early days for standards in blogging but the rules generally – and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t cover blogging – are very clear.  Writing paid for by a brand should be clearly identifiable as advertising or an advertising feature so the reader understands that it’s not under editorial control. The NUJ’s code makes it clear that payments, threats or other inducements should not affect what you write.  Chris Frost, Chair of the NUJ Ethics Council, said:
“I’m shocked to hear that a company is trying to bribe a blogger who’s a member of the NUJ to write material that is not necessarily his honest opinion. Whether a journalist is a blogger or works in more traditional media, trust in what they write is central and the NUJ does all it can to protect that with our code of conduct.”
The ASA took a little longer to respond, but I got their reply yesterday.  There’s a new code, recently extended to cover online advertising.  Here’s what they had to say about it:
In short, yes, this practice would represent a breach of the CAP Code (marketing communications must make it clear that they are so)… we know that the Office of Fair Trading are also interested in looking into this area, as this type of practice represents a serious breach of consumer legislation.
This last point relates back to a test case last year in which the OFT investigated a company called Handpicked Media who were paying bloggers to write for them.  The company was co-operative with the investigation, but it was judged that their activities may be operating in breach of the Consumer Protection From Unfair Trading Regulations 2008, and was engaging in unfair commercial practices.  There will be more test cases to establish whether that ‘may’ actually is an ‘is’ or not.
But either way, whether this turns out to be technically legal or not, it’s morally and ethically wrong.  The whole point about blogging is that it is a subjective medium, that writers write from interest and passion.  I do write paid for commercial stuff, but I write it in a very different style than I blog, and it’s always very clear that I am doing so.  I have never taken a penny from anyone for anything on this blog.  If other people, who don’t get as much paid writing as I do, choose to take money for paid-for ads on their blog that’s fine – so long as it’s very clear that this is advertising.  But what Barry and his agency is suggesting undermines the whole principle and foundation of blogging.
So is this the same as accepting free booze or hospitality from brewers?  There are different views on this, but I don’t think it is the same at all.  Fiona Beckett wrote an article for the Guardian recently about accepting payment for wine reviews, and much of the ensuing discussion was about free samples rather than payment.  
I get sent free beer all the time, and it comes down to one’s own personal ethics.  I’ve got so much beer, I’m constantly trying to give it away before it goes stale.  If someone sends me free beer and I like it, I’ll say so.  If I don’t like it, I probably won’t say anything unless the brewer is really insistent.  But I certainly won’t say I like a beer just because someone has sent me some for free.  

Hilariously, earlier this year someone sent me a bottle of a very well-known beer brand, and seemed to think that, having done so, I would of course be including this brand in my Publican’s Morning Advertiser rundown of my fifty favourite UK beers.  Needless to say, it wasn’t there and never will be. 

It’s trickier with trips/hospitality.  If someone takes you on an all-expenses-paid trip around Belgium, it’s kind of expected that you’ll use the experience to write a piece.  It doesn’t mean you have to write aglowing report of every beer if you didn’t really like it.  But if someone shows you a good time, you’re more likely to feel warm towards them – that’s human nature.  I’d like to think that a combination of full disclosure and personal integrity should mean you avoid saying things you don’t really believe and misleading your readers.
As for consultancy – I do some of that.  But I always tell brewers that while I’m working for them, I won’t be writing about them, and I won’t be promoting the work we’ve done together from a journalistic point of view.  If I ever do write about it – like I did with the launch of Martson’s Fast Cask – I will do so with full disclosure of my relationship, so readers can make up their own minds as to whether they can trust what I’m saying or not.
I know there are some bloggers who would see my standards as too lax, and others who would read this post and say, ‘What’s the fuss about?  If you can get free stuff, take it’.  I’m happy to agree to disagree with both, and am not really interested in attacking either.
But I would hope everyone, on every side, would see that taking payment in return for lying to your readers goes against everything that beer blogging is about.  

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has been approached by Translation.  If you have too, I hope you’re not tempted – you just might end up being the next legal test case.