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Bastards: a cautionary tale

So, I got my laptop nicked.

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll already be weary of the trials, tribulations and swearing that followed.

I hadn’t backed up – I have two separate external hard drives, but both had stopped working.  I know I should have backed up online (or in the ‘cloud’ if we really must) but I never seemed to have time to sort out the best way of doing so.

I was in the Jolly Butchers last Wednesday.  I was filming for a TV programme, and after that it was Emma Cole’s leaving do.  Emma has made the beery reputation of the Butchers, and now she’s defecting to the Spotted Dog in Brighton. (Brighton, you are lucky to have her.)

At 6pm I put my laptop bag down beside Emma’s chair. At 10.05pm I went back to it, and found the bag thrown under the table, with no laptop in it.  I know the timings because I spent the following day watching CCTV footage from two angles, and saw myself do these things.

I also saw a photo shoot to celebrate the Butchers being named ‘Beard-friendly pub of the year’, and a giant panda emerge from the toilets and go outside.  But even though the party table was in the middle of the screen from one of the security cameras, I did not see anyone go under the table, pick up a laptop, or put one in their bag.  At no point is the table left empty – there are always at least three people – people who were part of our crowd – sitting down at it.  You’ve got to admit, these bastards are good at what they do.

And I’m stupid.  Really, really stupid.

Look at those timings again: I left a very expensive laptop with every single piece of writing I’ve ever done, all my music, my accounts, all my photos, alone for four hours in a public place.  For half that time I was standing outside the pub.

I’m only writing this now as a cautionary tale, because I’m not the only person who is this stupid.

The Jolly Butchers is a lovely pub, one of my locals, and there’s rarely a time when at least some friends aren’t in it.  I feel comfortable there, as comfortable as I do in my home – that’s what great pubs are all about.

But without taking away from that, this comfort lulls you into a false sense of security.  You extend your trust to cover everyone in the pub.  You start behaving as if you are at home.  I wasn’t the only person to leave my bag unattended that night (I wasn’t the only person whose bag was tossed).  Every time I’m in this or other pubs, I see bags on backs of chairs with purses and valuables in them. I see phones left on tables when people go to the bar or toilet.  I see jackets hanging with wallets in them.

And when I’m out of the pub, I see poster campaigns from the police like the one above, which is currently running all round London.

You never think it will be you – but eventually it is.

As the poster shows, thieves look for the easiest lift they can get.  If you make it easy for them – if you INVITE them to take your stuff, as I did – it’s hardly surprising if they accept the invitation.

So I’m writing this to everyone who goes in pubs, who loves them, and feels relaxed in them enough to chill out and forget you’re in public: don’t be the person who makes it easier for thieving bastards than everyone else does.  Just keep your stuff with you, and out of sight.  It sounds boring. It sounds nannyish. It makes you think of things you’d rather not think of while you’re enjoying yourself.  But it’s absolutely necessary.

Oh yes, and do back up your computer.  Religiously.  Don’t keep putting it off like I did, because shit WILL happen.

Right! Now to start my new book from scratch…

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I learned a new word while I was over at the Great American Beer Festival. Or rather, I learned a new usage of a word I hadn’t really heard for ages.

When I was a kid, we used to buy this really cheap washing up liquid called Sunlight.  I can’t find a picture now of how it used to look – there’s no reason why I should be able to.  It was one of those cylindrical white plastic tubes that you willed empty so you could glue Airfix model parts onto and spraypaint silver to make a rocket like they showed you on Blue Peter. Or maybe that was just me.

But anyway.

It had a really cheap artificial lemon smell, and from the pack above I’m guessing that hasn’t changed.  And we used to have a thick, heavy dishcloth that never got washed or replaced (our house was superficially spotless but some of the detail was well dodgy).  This dishcloth was used to wipe down surfaces and clean plates, and after the cleaning was done it was never hung over the tap to dry out; it was just left in a bundle in the bottom of the bowl.  And so it acquired a kind of damp smell, but the artificial lemon aroma was so powerful it override the damp smell, and the smell of grease.

This lemon-wet-damp-cloth-grease smell sounds disgusting. But I liked it.  I don’t know why, I just did.  And it’s a smell, or a sense memory of one, that I get from some ultra-hoppy IPAs.  Just as runny French cheese might be described as ‘sweaty socks’, or certain aged beers as ‘farmyard’, divorced from its context – or perhaps even because of it if we’re driven by bravado – it’s a negative association used to describe an appealing smell.  If you’ve ever heard me describe a beer as smelling of ‘wet dishcloth’, this is a more detailed description of what I mean.

Over at GABF last week, I heard people describing hop character as ‘dank’ – this was a new one on me.  I wasn’t even sure if it was a descriptor or a new hop variety I hadn’t heard of.  According to my OED, dank means ‘unpleasantly damp and cold’, and is of Middle English origin, probably from the Swedish word for ‘marshy spot’.  And the ever-helpful Stan Hieronymous explained to me that it was being used here to describe a full-on West Coast hoppy character, big on citrus – big on everything – and best exemplified by Simcoe hops.

When I sniffed a proffered example, there it was: my old mum’s damp, artificial lemon dishcloth smell.

It’s probably more than coincidence that US hop freaks have chosen a word that means ‘damp’ to describe an extreme hop aroma that I associate with an eternally damp, lemon-impregnated dishcloth.

I’m feeling ambivalent about extreme hops at the moment – which I’ll write more about in due course – but I’m glad I now have a word to describe one of my favourite extreme hop aromas.  I love it – it’s a good word, slightly dangerous and a little alienating, and therefore perfect.

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The Most Essential Beer Book You Can Buy (apart from any of mine of course)

The Oxford Companion to Beer is out (well, it is in the US, and it will be in the UK on 27th October).

This book has doubled the weight of my carry-on luggage home

Let’s get the quibbles out of the way first: in today’s world of forensic pedantry surrounding beer, some people are bound to find errors. Others will take offence at subjective entries. Others still are bound to find glaring omissions, and some bits will have been out of date by the time the book went to press.
It’s impossible to capture every single fact, statistic and morsel of wisdom about beer into one book, but this is as close as anyone is going to get.
On Thursday night I attended the contributors’ party at the Great American Beer Festival and managed to snaffle a copy.
Obviously, I haven’t read it all – that would be silly – but I wanted to give the book a heads up, and give you an impressionistic view of what it’s like just from flipping through it.  
To give you an idea of how good this book is, I don’t normally like reading encyclopaedias about beer, and when I picked it up, I was in a room full of friends I hadn’t seen for ages, some who I was meeting in person for the first time, and some people whom I didn’t know but wanted to meet.  And it was a struggle to get my nose out of the book and say hello to them.  You open a page at random and you start reading, and you lose yourself in trivia, history, and bits of brewing science you always wanted to know but never got round to asking.  
It’s about two and a half years since I was first asked to contribute to the book.  I filed my last piece about a year ago.  And I was just one of 165 contributors, my 20 just a fraction of the 1100+ entries, which span 920 pages.  This gives you an idea of the incredible scale of this project.  My own pieces stretch from meaty topics such as IPA, Great Britain (how do you ‘do’ a whole country and its brewing tradition in 3500 words?) and Prohibition, to shorter entries on subjects like Farson’s Lacto Milk Stout, Snakebite, BYOB, Oast Houses and the Quarter (an obscure unit for measuring malt, about which I think my 250 words have probably doubled the amount written).  
Opening the book at random, pages 520-521 cover Koningshoeven Brewery, kosher beer, Kostritzer Schwarzbierbrauerei, krausening and kriek.  Flipping to pages 358-359, there are two meaty entries on Flanders and flavo(u)r.  Pages 426-427 cover heather, hectoliter, hedge hops, hefeweizen and Heineken.
Get the picture?  Just about everything any sane person could want to know about beer is in this book, and most of the entries I’ve dipped in to so far are surprisingly readable for such a weighty, authoritative tome.  
The Oxford Companions to wine and food are regarded as peerless and essential by many working in those fields.  I’d say the Oxford Companion to beer is the same: if you write about beer, study it or brew it, you simply cannot do without this book.  And if you’re simply interested enough in beer to be reading this blog, you kinda need it too.
If you don’t yet possess any of my three books you should buy them first, obviously.  But when you’ve got them and you’re back on Amazon, you simply have to buy this.  
Your postman won’t thank you, though.

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Ten initial observations about the Great American Beer Festival 2011

1. You’ve got to love a beer festival where there are touts on constant patrol outside the venue, because tickets sold out after just one week
2. Something has changed. 
This event is louder, more raucous, more masculine than it was five
years ago, last time I was here.  There
are fewer women here than there used to be.  The vast hall is a constant roar.  I think there might be a link between extreme hops and elevated testosterone.
3. “There’s no margin in having enemies” – John Hickenlooper,
Governor of the state of Colorado and former craft brewer, perfectly sums up
the good business sense that drives the spirit of cooperation in craft brewing
4. A sample pour size of 1oz (ie one twentieth of a UK pint) is not enough to really coat the
tongue, so it’s impossible to taste any beer properly.
5. After fifteen years, in business, Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head is still constantly behind the Dogfish Head stand, still selling his beers personally to a queue of
fans stretching down the hall, tirelessly greeting everyone who wants to shake his hand, have their photo taken with him, have him sign stuff.  You still want to not be impressed by him, to not be taken in by his boyish charisma.  But you still are.
6. It’s too busy. 
Despite the tiny sample pour size, every single beer I’m interested in
trying has a huge queue to get those miniscule measures.  The size of the measures simply feeds back into making the queues bigger.  It’s therefore impossible to get a good taste of a great beer. 
The system is broken.
7. In general, it reminds me a lot more of the Great British
Beer Festival than it did when I was last here five years ago.  I think
this is partly due to the GABF not being quite as good as it once was (see points 2 and 6), but mainly due
to the GBBF being quite a bit better than it once was.
8. Wells & Young’s have relaunched Courage
Imperial Stout here.  Wells & Young’s
is often criticised in the UK for having a dull portfolio of beers relative to
its competitors.  (They rationalised the
range of interesting Young’s beers when they took over that range, and they don’t
place as much emphasis on seasonals and limited editions as their key
competitors do.)  Now, they’re reviving a truly legendary beer –
but it’s only going to be available in the US. 
It won’t be available in the UK for another year.  I have no idea why, in the present British beer climate, any company with such an amazing asset would be so over-cautious with it.
9. There are carpets. 
And the teeny sample glasses are made of plastic.  (All events are a mix of good and bad, swings and roundabouts)
10. There is life after extreme hops. And it’s here too.  And that’s good.

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A jolly weekend in Cockermouth (stop sniggering at the back)

Great weekend last weekend, but I have to slow down and get this damn book written.

After the Social Media Beer Tasting in Glasgow, I went down to the Lake District for Taste Cumbria.  They’re really doing an awful lot to promote Cumbria as a food and drink destination, and it’s working really well.

Friday night I stayed at the Kirkstile Inn just outside Cockermouth, one of those pubs where the thick stone walls, wood fires and silence outside save for the hiss of river and tree lull you to sleep like a baby.  Another reason to go there is that it’s the brewery tap for the Loweswater Brewery, also known as Cumbrian Legendary Ales.  Their Loweswater Gold was named Champion Golden Beer of Britain at this year’s Great British Beer Festival, and the only thing better than sinking a few pints of it would be doing so after tramping across some of the irresistible mountains just outside.  They were calling to me, I tell you. They just weren’t calling as loudly as the comfy seat by the fire, or my bed, or one other very noteworthy beer.

CLA also brew Croglin Vampire.

Completely out of keeping with a range of beers that’s very nice but nothing you wouldn’t expect from a Cumbrian brewer, Croglin Vampire is an 8% Doppelbock, rich and spiritous, dark and brandy-like, and utterly wonderful.  Currently the Kirkstile Inn is about the only place you can get it.  Don’t worry, it’s a worthwhile trip.  Just as well they have rooms.

Next day we were off into Cockermouth – yes, Cockermouth – for the festival itself.  This is where Jennings Brewery is.  Again, the beers are good quality but nothing that you wouldn’t expect here.  But I love the story of Jennings brewery.  I’m not an apologist for big regional brewers – I just have an open mind about them.  I find this quite an interesting place to be. When Jennings was bought by Marston’s in 2005, the local CAMRA branch shouted that Marston’s were going to close the brewery, and continued to shout this even when Marston’s invested £250,000 improving the brewery.  If Marston’s had the slightest intention of closing the brewery, they had the perfect excuse to do so when it flooded in 2009.

Photo: Vanessa Graham on

But they didn’t.  They invested millions getting it open again.  I don’t know if anyone still thinks Marston’s are going to close Jennings, but if anyone does think that, I’ve got some magic beans you might want to buy.

But I digress.  On the first day of the festival, Jeff Pickthall and I were doing a beer and food matching event.  We’re both a bit vague about organisational stuff, and so were Taste Cumbria, so we ended up with about two hours to put some pairing suggestions together from food and beer being exhibited at the festival.  Not everyone was keen to have their stuff featured.  It was like an episode of the Apprentice. But as people filed into the room, we were just about succeeding in putting plates together for the following:

Mitchell Krause Hefe Weizen with goats cheese from Wardhall Dairy

Hardknott Cueboid with smoked cured boar

Jennings Sneck Lifter with lovely raisin fudge from Duerdens Confectioners of Burnley

Coniston Brewery’s Blacksmith ale with an amazing chocolate cake from Ginger Bakers in Ulverston

(We swapped these two around – people were split on what went best)

The aforementioned Croglin Vampire with Parsonby, another cheese from Wardhall which has been rind-washed in The Black Galloway porter from Sulwath brewery.  Beer washed cheese is the future, if you like your cheese smelly and overpowering like I do.

Thanks to everyone who agreed to donate stuff for us.  Amazingly, despite time constraints, exploding hefe weizen bottles and seventy extra people turning up just when we thought we’d done enough plates of food, it all went rather well, and the matches were ace.

Later, we sampled the delights of Cockermouth nightlife.  And encountered the Boogie Bus:

The ‘Big Boogie Bus’ – does that mean there’s a little one somewhere?

As you can see, it’s a pink bus that has pole dancers and lap dancers and glowing dance floors inside it. It roams the streets of Cumbria, stopping to lure stag and hen parties on board.  Then it glows brightly, drives off, and the stag and hen parties are never seen or heard from again.

Jeff and I decided to pass.  Instead we roamed the pubs in search of good beer.  And finally, after trying everywhere else, we found Cockermouth’s perfect pub, a place I’d be happy to see in any town.

1761 is modern and stylish without trying too hard.  It has Guinness, Strongbow and Carlsberg on the pumps because that’s what people want.  But it also has a good selection of local cask ales, and a small but perfectly formed range of craft beers in bottles including Little Creatures, Orval, Duvel, and Pietra.

There isn’t a full kitchen, but they do something I wish more pubs would do – a small, simple tapas menu.  We had stuffed jalapeno peppers, a cured meat platter, cheese platter, and some chorizo cooked in wine, which formed a great alternative to the curry and Cobra we were planning on.

I write about 1761 because it deserves to be written about.  It’s not a fully fledged craft beer pub, but it’s a pub with aspirations that understands the needs of its local community, is independent, and friendly.  It’s not boring like some.  It’s not too raucous like others.  There should be more pubs like it.

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The Cask Report: everything you ever wanted to know about cask ale, launches today

The Cask Report was conceived four years ago to help solve the paradox of the UK cask ale industry: there are few if any national brands, it’s a fragmented industry consisting of over 800 brewers with many voices and little internal structure.

This is what appeals about cask ale: its relative lack of corporate bollocks, its regionality and localness.

It’s also one of cask ale’s biggest weaknesses: no one voice putting a coherent case for the industry as a whole.

So it’s brilliant that, despite their differences, CAMRA, SIBA, the key large regional players, the Family Brewers of Britain, and Cask Marque, can come together and agree to jointly issue a keynote industry report.  I’m paid by these people to write this report every year, and this is the fifth time we’ve done it.  Of course it’s positive, but as an independent writer (who likes cask ale and likes a great deal of other beer as well) I try to keep it objective, accurate and informative, and resist the desire to make it too sales-y.

This year’s report is out today and you can download it at  It’s primarily aimed at publicans who may (or may not) be interested in stocking cask ale, but some of it may be of interest to others who write about beer, or are interested in it.

It’s been a really tough year for pubs generally – and cask ale is only available in pubs.  The story for the last few year is that cask is in decline, but compared to the decline in the overall beer market, cask’s decline is very small.  It’s been getting smaller every year, but has not quite managed to get back into sustained volume growth.  With 25 pubs closing every week, beer duty up by 35% in three years and the total on-trade beer market down by more than 7%, that’s not surprising – what is surprising is that cask is doing as well as it is.  Here are some positive indicators in a difficult year:

  • Cask ale drinkers are more than twice as likely to go to the pub regularly as drinkers who don’t drink cask ale
  • The number of cask ale drinkers has fallen overall – but the number of young people drinking it (18-24) has risen for the second year running
  • This represents a broader recruitment trend – of all people who say they drink cask ale, 10% of them started drinking in the last year.  37% started drinking it in the last ten years.  Cask ale drinkers are leaving the market at one end, but they are entering it at the other – a clear sign of the revival of interest in cask ale
  • 2500 more pubs are stocking cask ale this year
  • Cask ale’s share of on-trade beer has increased to 15% – getting on for one in six pints served in the pub
So if it’s so good, why isn’t volume increasing?  Because for most drinkers, cask is an occasional drink within the repertoire.  Cask ale drinkers are more curious, experimental, have broader interests, go out more and try new things more than non-cask ale drinkers.  This is both a blessing and a curse – it means they’re more likely to try cask ale – it also means they’re more likely to try other things too.
So the task is to get people to drink more of it, more often.  This year, we commissioned some independent qualitative research to find out how publicans might do that – nine focus groups, across the country, probing attitudes to cask ale, and behaviour around it.
The results make for interesting reading.  Some of the solutions sound obvious – but if they were, more pubs would already be doing them.  I won’t go into a full analysis here, but some of the most interesting things for me were:
  • Only the beer industry and beer geeks debate the merits of micros versus big regional brewers.  For most drinkers, the dynamic in the market is about ‘familiar’ versus ‘unfamiliar’ beers – it doesn’t matter who brews them.  Depending on who you are and where you drink, Thornbridge Jaipur could be more familiar than Adnams Bitter.  Pubs need a mixture of familiar and unfamiliar brands.  If you have, say, three hand pumps, three familiar brands is boring, while three unfamiliar brands is too eclectic (unless you’re a specialist craft beer pub, frequented by passionate beer geeks).  Most drinkers want to experiment, and then go back to what they know.
  • The single best way to sell more cask ale is to pre-emptively offer tasters to people who look unsure at the bar.  We’ve been saying this for five years now.  It’s still the first thing that comes up in research.  Yet so few pubs do it.
  • Another failsafe method – which sounds so obvious – is a chalkboard featuring names, ABV and, if you like, something about taste, style and provenance.  At a busy bar people can’t scrutinise hand pumps properly and feel pressured into making a quick decision.  Often, they’ll default to Guinness or lager.  A clearly visible chalkboard gives them plenty of time to choose a cask ale
  • We didn’t ask this, people told us: cask ale is natural, flavoursome and ‘a little bit cool’.  The explosion in the number of new beers available, and the growth in the number of pubs selling them, suggests that cask beer has momentum, and it’s becoming generally regarded as cool in an ‘old school’ way rather than uncool in an ‘old fashioned, way.
Those, for me, are the points anyone interested in promoting cask ale should be banging on about.  There’s plenty more in the main report.  I hope you find it interesting and useful.

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Social Media Beer Tasting – Tonight! In fact, in about 7 minutes!

Social media and the world’s most sociable drink: and the explosion in beer blogging has shown, the two go together like Worthington White Shield and Keen’s cheddar.

This week is world Social Media Week.  Real world events across a whole host of subjects are happening in Glasgow, Chicago, Vancouver, Milan, Berlin, LA, Beirut, Bogota, Sao Paolo, Buenos Aries and Moscow, and being broadcast in real time.

Right now I’m at the WEST brewery in Glasgow, which is hosting a social media beer tasting.

I’ll be tasting beers and meeting the brewers of WEST, Harviestoun, Magic Rock and Kelburn, tasting their beers and talking to them about their beers, beer generally, social media, and anything else that comes to mind.

It’s being filmed and broadcast live, and you can see it here.  And if you can’t get the same beers as us, get a different beer!  We’ll also be monitoring the #smwbeer hashtag on Twitter, and unless you’re being rude about our personal appearance we’ll probably work in some of your tweets to the discussion, in a gigantic virtual feedback loop of beery social medianess.

So open a cold one and come and join us!

Here’s the video of the event if anyone wants to relive it!

Watch live streaming video from smw_glasgow2 at

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Me and Mr Flintoff

Can I just say, it was him, not me, who insisted on this photo being taken and then tweeted it to his half a million followers.

He describes himself as ‘currently unemployed’, and gave a strong impression that ‘beer writer’ would be a good place to go.

Freddie Flintoff: “So how do you get to be a beer writer then?”

Me: “Well I was really shit at sport…”

Thanks to Thwaites for taking me to the cricket, introducing me to Freddie, and blowing me away with an amazing range of limited edition beers that any young buck micro would be proud of.

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Elbow: From “Build a Rocket Boys” to “Brew a Beer, Boys”!

I love the band, Elbow, for a great many reasons.  And even though it’s the greatest cliche in popular music history, I’ve loved them since their early stuff.

As a wordsmith, even one of the everyday hack variety, I love Elbow for lyrics such as:

“I’m proud to be the one to hold you when the shakes begin”

“You little sod I love your eyes/be everything to me tonight”

“Grow a fucking heart, love”

“Throw these curtains wide/one day like this a year would see me right”

“We still believe in love, so fuck you”

“Dear friends/you are angels and drunks/you are Magi”

“You were freshly painted angels/walking on walls/stealing booze/and hour long, hungry kisses”

“The violins explode inside me when I meet your eyes/and I’m spinning and I’m falling like a cloud of Starlings………….darling is this love?”

I love them because of their cleverness, their instrumentation, their openness.

I love them because they are five crumpled northern blokes who look like they could be my mates.  (And I secretly love the fact that people keep telling me I look a little bit like lead singer Guy Garvey, especially around the saggy, weary eyes).

I love them because Guy Garvey genuinely seems like one of the nicest men in the world (I’d love to see him and Andy Moffat from the Redemption brewery each trying to buy the other a pint – I really wouldn’t bet on who would crack first and accept the other’s hospitality rather than give it).

I love them because they absolutely reek of the pub.  I know they spend their time in pubs, and their music feels like it was born in pubs, it feels like that’s where it should be performed, even though it works in vast arenas and on Glastonbury’s main stage.

And now I love them because they’ve brewed their own beer:

The beer itself is not news: it was announced a good few weeks ago now, and is just about to be launched.  It’ll be officially launching at the Manchester Food and Drink Festival, where I’m attempting to arrange an interview with them about the beer.

What’s new is that the beer is now going to be available in bottle, so fans outside the north west can enjoy it.  And that a percentage of profits will be donated to Oxfam. Because they’re really nice lads.

If I can anticipate the inevitable “Why did they choose such a dull brewer to work with?” comments – Elbow specifically selected Robinsons because they wanted to work with a brewer local to them in the north west.  And if I was to imagine what an Elbow beer is like, it’s not some flashy, hop-heavy imbalanced beer: an Elbow beer is an accessible, traditional beer, one of those pints you’d have with your dad when you go back home, one of those beers that you can drink a few pints of, is balanced, fruity with a dry finish.  And that’s exactly the kind of beer Elbow went for.  So long as it’s done well, there’s always a place for it, and Robinsons brew it perfectly well.

There will soon be a website for the beer, telling you where you can get it and stuff.

In the meantime, if you can’t get the Build a Rocket Boys! beer, you can still get the Build a Rocket Boys album, and if you haven’t done that yet, I suggest you do.