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The dawn chorus, the apple, and another forthcoming book from me

I’ve managed to end up working on three new books, with three different publishers. Here’s a story about the second of those three.

I’ve already talked about my new beer book, What Are You Drinking? It’s a crowdfunded project with a new type of publisher that I’m doing (a) because it’s a really good model for both readers and authors and (b) my ex-editor, who made my first two beer books happen, is leading the project. It’s more than 50% funded. If you haven’t pledged for it yet and you’re kind of intending to, please do – it’ll help shorten the gap for those who have already pledged before the book comes out and they get their special copies.

Another reason I’m publishing that book through the crowdfunded model is that, while I’ve been very lucky so far to have my books published as general non-fiction books by a big mainstream publisher, those kind of publishers don’t want any more beer books (at least, not from me) at the moment. They do want me to write more books, but about what they see as broader subjects than beer.

I’m not averse to the idea. While I intend to write about beer as much as I can for the foreseeable future, my ambition was always to be a writer, period. My interests are broader than beer, and they grow as I write more: one of the many great things about beer is that it links you into history, sociology, cultural studies, travel, biology, biochemistry, gastronomy and lots more if you want it to. The luckiest thing about being an author is that every book takes you in a journey of discovery and leaves you in a different place by the time you’ve finished it.

Two years ago I co-wrote the first ever world guide to cider. It was enormous fun. Along the way I spent time in barns in Somerset working an ancient Norman cider press, in dark orchards in midwinter participating in the ancient rite of Wassail, getting stoned with new friends on the shores of Lake Michigan, and so much more.

The thing about the cider book is that it was my first time writing a coffee table-style book of listings, the basic format to most beer books. There was no room for the kinds of long, narrative passages that made up my first three books. I loved the cider book, and it has done very well. But the best pieces of writing I did while working on it never made it into the book.

These pieces of writing had one more thing in common: while cider ran through them like a golden stream, they weren’t necessarily about cider. They were at least as much about cider makers, apples, orchards and orchardists, and the land in which they stood. I’ve been a city boy for most of my adult life, but my time in orchards allowed something new to take root.

I spend most of my life staring at a screen. It’s fine – that will never change. But I need a counter-balance to it – increasingly so, as more of what I see on screen depresses me. I need an escape, and I feel drawn ever more strongly to a world of trees and fields, orchards and hills. When I’m there, it resets everything, reconnects me with reality, slows down the rhythms of life to a normal pace, recharges my batteries and feeds my soul. The need is getting bad – so bad that I’ve even become a convert to gardening, tending my own twenty-foot plot and trying to coax it into some semblance of nature’s beauty and bounty. (As I write, I’m missing the fern I planted in a shady corner three weeks ago, and wondering how it’s doing.)

Drawing all this together, I realised there was a book to be written about the humble apple – about its power, its symbolism, that fact that, hiding in plain sight, pretending to be utterly normal and inconsequential, it’s actually one of the most powerful totems we have.

So I put together a synopsis for a book that tells the story of the apple in both the real and the mythical world. In the real world, it’s the story of a fruit that originated in Kazakhstan that is now as French as Camembert, as English as the Archers and as American as mom’s apple pie. In the mythical world, it’s the forbidden fruit of Eden (even though the Bible never says it is), a mainstay of Greek and Nordic myth, a key character in the legend of King Arthur, and the centre of the action in countless fairy tales.

Often, when you’re around apples, the real world and the mythical world still meet.

Last week I visited Herefordshire to help celebrate their Blossomtime festival. At this time of year, it’s a magical place. One of the things I’ll be doing in the book is to try and put some of the pictures I took, and they thoughts and feelings they inspired, into words.

At this time of year, the Marcle Ridge is frosted with apple blossom wherever you look. And the rainbow was a nice touch.

On the morning of 1st May, we climbed May Hill in Gloucestershire to greet the sun. 

Northwest, 5.30am 
We had to get up at 4am to be up there in time, and the sun rose at about 5.35 am. There were around 300 people up there, and I quickly realised that this wasn’t just some quaint local custom: we were in fact celebrating the ancient Celtic festival of Beltain.
This did, inevitably, mean that Morris dancers were involved.
I’ll be discussing Morris dancers in some detail in the book.
The most annoying thing about the Morris as that they danced all through the actual sunrise, completely ignored it, didn’t comment on it at all. They actually stood between the crowd and the sunrise. They seemed to think we’d got out of bed in the middle of the night and walked up a steep fucking hill in the freezing fucking cold, to watch them, rather than the sun.
Luckily, this year at least, the sun upstaged them.
Even if it did benefit from a handy bit of lens flare.

I spent the rest of the weekend learning about orchards, the cycle of the seasons, and the rhythms of natural life. Orchards are of course a sometimes uneasy compromise between natural order and and human meddling, but right now they just look amazing.

Whether we’re talking traditional ‘standard’ trees… 
Or more modern, more engineered ‘dwarf’ or ‘bush’ trees…

Each has its own incredible beauty, and as the blossom falls from pollenated blooms, we see the tiny, young fruit having ‘set’, which will now start to grow into apples.

Baby Cider

The wonderful timing of this event means that May Day and the celebration of the blossom, the returning of life after the dead of winter, coincides with the previous year’s cider being ready if it has been fermented traditionally over the winter. I was asked to hand out the awards in the local cider and perry competition, and many of the ciders on display had only been tapped and drawn from the fermenter over the previous 24 hours. Some of it benefited from being young, fresh and vivacious. Others showed promise, but will clearly benefit from a little more time, a little more maturity. I’m already learning that apples and apple trees have an incredible amount in common with humans.

And that’s what the book is really about. Provisionally titled ‘Comfort Me: the apple and us’, it’s not (just) a biological history of apples and orchards; it’s the story of us, told through the fruit we hold more dear than any other.

It has been commissioned by Penguin, and will be published under their Particular Books imprint towards the end of 2016 or early 2017. Between now and then, I’ve got me wellies and me hiking boots on, and I’ll be getting in touch with my Pagan side.

Was heil!

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I am so fucking bored by the beer discourse of 2015

It started off odd, like a beer that tastes OK at first, then has something nagging that attracts your attention, and on the second and third sips, starts to reveal something badly wrong. Suddenly it all got legal. Then, it got nasty.

When I write stuff for the consumer press about beer, I stick to the line – which I believe on good days, when the medication is working – that there’s never been a better time to be a beer drinker. More brewers, more styles, more experimentation and inventiveness…

And whatever your views on big brewers trying to muscle in on craft, their intense interest proves that the old paradigm – that drinkers just want cold, fizzy suds and are scared of flavour – has been shattered.

When I write for the consumer press, the narrative is that ‘we’ – the people who read and write about beer, the sad minority who were often ridiculed until a few brief years ago – have won. We’ve done it. We – the brewers, the drinkers, the advocates, the aficionados, the fans, the proselytisers, the people who care – have managed to reposition good beer as something that is worth the average, non-beery person having a look at.

I’ve always said that the discourse around beer is happening in a bubble. Bloggers say shit about brewers and brewers worry about it; brewers say shit about beer and bloggers debate it; people wirrit away about big questions of style and definition; and it all takes place in a bubble outside which most people – most beer drinkers – are completely unaware of the discourse, and wouldn’t be interested in it if they were.

Then, in the last two years, the bubble has expanded. Non-beery mates started talking about what hop varieties they prefer. Old, traditional brewers started experimenting with new techniques and ingredients. My wife’s friends, increasingly, started to order beer by default in the pub rather than wine.

Everything was awesome.

But of course, it wasn’t really. Just like in the film.

Success makes people uneasy. Remove the easily identifiable enemy, and people become unsure what they’re fighting for, or against.

And so as soon as 2014’s Christmas hangover wore off, we turned on each other like a pack of starved, neurotic, Stella-drunk piranhas.

The sexism in beer thing needed to come to a head, but it seems to have had the effect of bringing sexist dickheads out from under their rocks for one final hurrah. Craft beer delegates organise events in strip clubs, while America’s biggest beer brand goes out with labels that fall into an uncomfortably rapey narrative. People insisting that “it’s all a bit of fun” show a distinct lack of humour and launch menacing attacks on those who call out their neanderthal attitudes. (Sorry, that’s an insult to neanderthals.)

Everyone got litigious, suing each other over degrees of similarity and pinhead dances about the difference between a style or description and a trademarked name.

New breweries are criticised for having widespread support when they launch, or for being good at promoting themselves, or just for being new. Older breweries are criticised for being older or bigger, or for being so good at what they do that they become commercially successful and grow.

And the fucking definition of craft beer debate lumbers on like a zombie, eating the brains of talented people who could otherwise be writing something inspirational, or at least interesting.

I count myself highly among the sinners. We’re all guilty.

The tipping point for this rant was the 43rd article I’ve read this week about the lawsuit against Molson Coors for their crime of calling Blue Moon a craft beer. Or maybe it was the 65th thing I’ve read about the dickhead American brewer who thinks it’s cool to peddle sexist shit because it’s all meant to be a laugh. I’m drunk, and I can’t really remember.

But this nasty, unpleasant, navel-gazing, paranoid, defeatist, frightened, hostile discourse is putting me off my beer.

It’s tedious. It’s boring. It’s negative. It’s against all that I love about beer.

Astonishingly, given that I’ve criticised CAMRA so often on this blog, they suddenly sound like a breath of fresh air, having passed motions that start to move the campaign into the twenty-first century. Moaning craft beer twats now sound more like flat-earth CAMRA twats that flat-earth CAMRA twats do.

My new beer book – one of three I’m currently writing – is about hops, barley, yeast and water. It’s returned me to a purer, distilled form of what I love about beer, and why I first started writing about it. It has me visiting hop gardens and maltings, thinking about the miracle of fermentation and attempting to find new ways of articulating what makes beer so special. I love working on it.

And then I keep making the mistake of checking out my Twitter feed or Facebook, and feel like the hop gardens have been ploughed up by orcs, like Sam’s vision of the shire when he peers into Galadriel’s pool.

I often comment on industry stuff, and I apologise for my part in perpetuating these negative, reductive debates. Shit needs to get called out. But can we please all try to remember that it’s beer? It’s just beer. Trivial and by-the-by. Beer, the simple liquid that’s capable of transforming meals, social occasions, friendships, perspectives on reality.

Cold we please have some conversations about beer that reflect what an utterly wonderful place beer is in right now?

Thank you. As you were. I am now going to finish the extra pint of Peroni which I probably didn’t need.

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The best thing I have ever read about alcohol – and possibly anything else

I hate the patronising language of social media clickbait because it debases what were once perfectly good terms and insults the intelligence of its audience. But just for once, I wish I was writing for one of those wanky clickbait sites because my headline could only be ‘This fruit fly drank some booze. You will not BELIEVE what happened next!’

I seem to be writing three new books simultaneously. I’ll explain how, why and what in a later post. But two of these books – one of them being What Are You Drinking, my new crowdfunded book with ace publishers Unbound – are taking me onto a bit of nature writing. It’s quite the thing right now, just like travel writing was around the time I did Three Sheets to the Wind. That’s the thing about beer – write about it, and you can turn it into writing about whatever you want. You can be a comedian or a stocktaker, a philosopher or a troll.

Leavening a bit of nature writing into my work feels like a nice thing to do at this point. I was never big on science at school. I feel like a deeper analysis of the way things like yeast and malting work is the next step in my own personal education about beer. And if I can write about it in a non-nerdy, not-too-technical way, it might also appeal to a broader, mainstream, curious beer audience.

On top of that, there’s also the personal journey that accompanies and dictates any book. Right now, as I spend most of my waking hours looking at screens, I find myself increasingly drawn to the natural world as some kind of counter-balancing weight to keep my sanity level. I just spent the whole weekend gardening and baking bread, and slept better, and felt happier, than I have in months working at the screen.

Both the personal and professional have led me to this book, by my new favourite author:

I seriously believe this may be one of the most important food and drink books of the last fifty years. Its treasures are too many for me to go into here. I’m boring everyone I speak to about how it has changed my life – or at least, endorsed and spurred on many of the changes I was already trying to make to my life. You like beer, right? And proper barbecue? And sourdough bread? And good cheese? Of course you do. And it’s like he looked into your mind and conceived this book to appeal to you, and only you – and, of course, everyone else like you.

But anyway, never mind the life-changing lessons, the astonishing insights and inspiration. What I want to write about here is a footnote on page 374 that took me ten minutes to find when I went back to check it. That’s how good this book is: the most astonishing fact it contains can be thrown away in a hidden footnote.

It’s in a section where Pollan is writing in praise of alcohol and its effects. He does so in a calm and rational, yet warm and engaging manner, and succeeds in making it seem obvious that alcohol is – on balance – an overwhelming boon to society in a way I wish I could but can’t stay calm enough to do.

He talks about the many species of animal that actively seek out alcohol and enjoy the benefits of intoxication. The footnote concerns Drosophila Melanogasta, otherwise known as the common fruit fly, or vinegar fly.

I’ve been reading more about it, and the male Drosphila Melanogasta has an endearing (to an extent) quirk. When it reaches maturity, it tries to mate with anything it can. It tries to court other completely incompatible species of insect, other males of its own species, even, rather dodgily, sexually immature female fruit flies. It reminds me of a hapless insect Sid the Sexist from Viz magazine, with absolutely no idea of how to pull.

But as it gets rebuffed, it seemingly learns. Progressively, it figures out what is and is not compatible, and spends less and less time on lost causes, smartening up its act, until it finally succeeds with an appropriate partner. Scientists studying fruit flies are very excited by what seems like evidence of learning and modifying behaviour in this tiny animal rather than simple blind instinct.

But that’s not the brilliant bit that Michael Pollan wrote about.

Again, like Sid the Sexist, fruit flies also love alcohol. as you will appreciate if you’ve ever had a glass of beer outdoors. Do they think it helps their pulling technique? Scientists have yet to determine that.

But it does help keep them alive.

Drosophila Melanogasta suffers from having a tiny parasitic wasp that lives in its stomach. Yes, you read that correctly. I know a fruit fly is tiny. But it has an even tinier wasp that can get into its stomach.

If it stays there, the wasp will kill the fruit fly. So the fruit fly drinks alcohol, which it enjoys, and finds non-fatal. But it’s a different story for the tiny parasitic wasp. It can’t cope with its drink at all. When the fruit fly drinks, the booze kills the tiny wasp in its gut… by making it violently shit out its insides through its arse.

This incredible discovery – which surely ranks alongside the discovery of penicillin or the the atom – was made by Neil F Milan et al, and written up in a paper called “Alcohol Consumption as Self-Medication against Blood-Borne Parasites in the Fruit Fly,” published in a journal called Current Biology, vol 22 no.6, published in 2012.

Congratulations sir. The drinking world salutes you. And bravo, Drosophila Melanogasta. I will never swat you away from my pint again.

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Beer Marketing Awards pit micros, regional and global brewers against each other

I helped organise the inaugural Beer Marketing Awards. The awards event is on 14th April, and the shortlist tells us a great deal about where the beer industry is today.

When I was approached to be a partner in the first ever Beer Marketing Awards, the thing that sold it to me was that there were categories that appeal to brewers of any size. 
There’s a misconception in some quarters of the beer world that marketing is by definition a bad thing, which is a bit like saying breathing is evil because some people say mean things when they do. 
Marketing is essential for any brewery, of any size. And what’s exciting just now is that just as beer itself has been revolutionised, so has the way in which it engages people and builds relationships with them. 
Gone are the days when an ad by Heineken or Carling in the middle of Coronation Street would be seen by every drinker who wasn’t already in the pub. TV ads aren’t as good as they were because regulations have been tightened and marketers are more cautious. Some individuals in the craft beer movement have more followers on Twitter than the world’s biggest beer brands. The rules of design have been broken. And while budget will always separate big from small, you can get noticed without spending anything at all if your idea is good enough. But does telly still have a role to play? Can sponsorship be something useful rather than simply being an irritant? Of course. 
Across all marketing disciplines, there’ a lot of crap, but the good stuff shines out from it. By celebrating the good, we hopefully encourage more people to do better marketing. So I couldn’t wait to see what our shortlist would look like. And here it is:

Best Branding or Design (Sponsored by Co.Bir) 

  • Beavertown 
  • BrewDog 
  • Daniel Thwaites Brewery for Crafty Dan 

Best Use of Competitions (Sponsored by PUB16) 

  • Thornbridge and Waitrose, with BrewUK  – ‘Homebrew Challenge’ 

Best Use of Merchandise (Sponsored by Vektor) 

  • Ales by Mail – ‘Beer Advent Calendar’ 
  • Duvel Moortgat, Vedett Extra Blond – ‘Vedett Extra’ 

Best Use of Sponsorship (Sponsored by Dark Star) 

  • Budweiser – ‘FA Cup Open Trials’ 
  • Carling – ‘World Cup ITV Coverage’ 
  • Estrella Damm – ‘Gastronomy Congress’ 

Best Public Relations Campaign

  • Britain’s Beer Alliance – ‘There’s a Beer For That’ 
  • Greene King Old Speckled Hen – ‘Old Speckled Christmas’ 
  • Marston’s Pedigree – ‘Making Local PR Count’ 

Best Stunt or Event (Sponsored by Charles Wells) 

  • Greene King – ‘Charity Ball’ 
  • Sol – ‘Sol Street Food’ 
  • Wychwood Hobgoblin – ‘Hobgoblin Roadshow’ 

Best Business-to-Business Campaign (Sponsored by Ella Communications) 

  • Butcombe Bottle Ales – ‘Premium Bottled Ale Report’ 
  • Carlsberg – ‘Crafted’ 
  • Heineken – ‘Our Shout’ 

Best use of Social Media (Sponsored by Poppleston Allen) 

  • BeerBods – ‘#BeerBods’ 
  • Brew Dog – ‘#MashTag’ 
  • Estrella – ‘#EstrellaLife’ 
  • Trooper by Robinsons and Maiden Brews – ‘Trooper Tracker’ 

Best Print Advertising Campaign (Sponsored by Britain’s Beer Alliance) 

  • Belhaven Best – ‘To a Pint’ 
  • Fuller’s London Pride – ‘Made of London’ 
  • Old Speckled Hen- ‘Seek Out Something Different’ 

Best Broadcast Advertising Campaign (Sponsored by Craft Beer Co.) 

  • Britain’s Beer Alliance – ‘There’s A Beer For That’ 
  • Old Speckled Hen – ‘Seek Out Something Different’ 
  • Shepherd Neame Spitfire – ‘Bottle of Britain’ 

Best Integrated Campaign (Sponsored by the BII) 

  • Britain’s Beer Alliance – ‘There’s A Beer For That’ 
  • Marston’s Pedigree – ‘Live a Life of Pedigree’ 
  • Purity Brewing – ‘Cycling’
We’ll also be giving out an award for ‘Outstanding Individual Contribution’ (sponsored by Charles Faram) and an overall Grand Prix, chosen from the category winners and sponsored by Boutique Beers by Matthew Clark, our event partner and title sponsor. 
It’s probably no surprise that the regional brewers dominate many categories, as they have decent budgets but not enough to just blanket everywhere. We’re very happy some global brewers have joined in as in marketing they set the pace, and spend most of the money in the category. We didn’t get as many entries from smaller brewers as we’d perhaps hoped – this may have something to do with the entry fee, which we couldn’t avoid having in our start-up year but may be up for review in future.
When I look at ‘Best Integrated Campaign’ and see a pan-industry initiative funded by big global brewers, a campaign from one of Britain’s largest cask ale brands and another from a small but rapidly growing craft brewer; or ‘Best Social Media’ being fought out between a regional, a world beer owned by one of the big global brewers, a campaign by a craft beer brand built through social media and a club set up by a craft beer fan, I know we succeeded in what we set out to achieve in these awards. Any brewer of any size can do good – or bad – marketing.
The awards evening is at the Old Truman Brewery on Brick Lane, East London, on Tuesday 14th April. Tickets are available here. We’re keeping formalities to a minimum, with not a black tie to be seen, a short awards presentation, a few street food carts, some great beers on tap and a DJ till midnight. Just as the awards seek to celebrate all beer, so the event itself will allow the whole industry to get together to enjoy a drink and a chat.
If you’re a journalist who wants to cover the event, please contact me to talk about press tickets. If you’re a finalist who hasn’t yet booked, you get one place free or a discounted table rate.
It’s been a long old awards season this year – which you have to expect if you organise a brand new awards scheme from scratch I suppose. I’m looking forward to this event so much (though I’ve got an awful lot of work to do writing my awards presentation speech). Afterwards, I’m going to surprise everyone by actually writing about beer, pubs and cider on this blog 
But if this focus on the way beer is sold persuades just one brewer to put as much thought into how their beer is presented as to how it tastes, if it stops one company from doing crude, lazy, sexist or embarrassing marketing and encourages them to do something more thoughtful instead, it will all have been worthwhile.

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Why CAMRA’s Pub of the Year should be yours too

On Tuesday the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) announced that the winner of its National Pub of the Year competition was the Salutation Inn in Gloucestershire. After visiting last October, I completely concur.

What makes the perfect pub? It’s the subject of one of my favourite ever pieces of writing. In fact you could write a very good book about it. (Perhaps even more than one – watch this space).

There are, of course, many potential factors. But usually, at the heart of it, are the people who run it. The best local breweries, most stunning views or finest Victorian architecture count for nothing if the people in charge are just going through the motions.

It’s not easy running a pub. You have to be great with people, and you have to be prepared to work long hours. To really shine, you either need the energy of youth, or the budget for a team to supply it. And the part that doesn’t get talked about often enough – it’s a business. You have to be a really good businessman – an exceptional entrepreneur. You need to always be looking for that new idea that will appeal to people and give them reasons to cross the threshold. Oh yes, and you’ve got to be really good at keeping beer in perfect condition.

Peter Tiley ticks all these boxes, and one final one – he absolutely loves what he does.

I met him when he invited me down to the Sally as part of the Apple Day celebrations last year. It’s the kind of pub you don’t want to leave. I wrote about that visit here, in my column for the Publican’s Morning Advertiser.

Congratulations Pete and all at the Sally.

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Announcing my next beer book: “What are you drinking?” No really, do you know?

Following my announcement last night about my new crowdfunded beer book project, we go live today – and here’s the idea I’m working on.

Beer is many things.

It’s often cold, always wet, usually refreshing. It’s democratic, straightforward and accessible, but can also be complex and challenging. It can be blond, brown, red or black, strong or weak, light and spritzy, creamy and zesty, rich and fruity, chocolatey, coffee-like, spicy, piney, citrusy, caramelised, sour, or even salty.

Beer’s unique balance of exciting diversity and easy-going approachability have made it the most widely drunk alcoholic beverage on the planet. Only water and tea are more popular. In the twenty-first century, the global craft beer revolution is spreading beer’s astonishing palate of flavours and styles to people who previously thought it could only be fizzy and tasteless.

But behind all the excitement around the renaissance of the world’s most popular alcoholic drink lies an extraordinary fact: very few beer drinkers have much of an idea of what their beverage is made of.

Do you?

We all know that wine is made by fermenting pressed juice from grapes, and cider comes from doing something similar to apples. But what creates the flavour and texture of beer? Do you know what makes it that colour, or where the alcohol comes from? What creates that inimitable heady rush on the nose or that crisp, dry finish at the back of the throat?

For all its straightforwardness, beer is a complex drink. The typical drinker might mumble vaguely about hops without having any clear idea of what hops are, or they may even talk about ‘chemicals’.

And that’s a shame, because each of the four main ingredients of beer has an incredible story. 

‘What Are You Drinking?’* is a journey into the four main ingredients of beer. The book will tell their stories and uncover the little miracles in malted barley, hops, yeast and water, and how each of these contributes to the massive miracle that is beer. 
Mixing travel writing, nature writing, history and memoir, this book picks up four natural ingredients that are usually only ever discussed in technical brewing manuals and takes them for a spin through time and across continents.
From the lambic breweries of Belgium, where beer is fermented with wild yeasts drawn down from the air around the brewery, to the aquifers below Burton-on-Trent, where the brewing water is rumoured to contain life-giving qualities, this book won’t just describe what each ingredient is; it will tell the full story behind how and why it came to be in beer and why that matters. 
It’s a story that’s aimed at the general reader and curious drinker, but even brewers and hardcore beer fans will find facts and stories they didn’t know, or at least have them presenting in a refreshing new light.
‘What Are You Drinking’ will explain why hops grown in different parts of the world have such dramatically different flavours; it will give an eye-witness account of how the process of malting changes a humble barley grain into so much more, and will explain as much about the behaviour of yeast as you can handle without a degree in biochemistry.
We’ll travel from the surreal madness of drink-sodden hop-blessings in the Czech Republic, to Bamberg in the heart of Bavaria, where malt smoked over an open flame creates beer that tastes like liquid bacon, and to the hop harvest in the Yakima Valley in the Pacific North West of the United States. We’ll explore the history of our understanding of fermentation, the lost age of hallucinogenic gruit beers, and the evolution of modern hop varieties that now challenge grapes in terms of how they are discussed and revered.

Along the way, we’ll meet and drink with a cast of characters who reveal the magic of beer, and celebrate the joy of drinking it. And, almost without noticing, we’ll learn the naked truth about the world’s greatest beverage.

The ‘Brewing Elements’ series of books published by the US Brewers’ Association does cover these four ingredients, but they are strictly only for brewers and the most hardcore beer enthusiasts. (The one on water even comes with a health warning discouraging you from reading it unless you from reading it unless you are a trained brewer with at least a high school level of education in chemistry.) This will be the first time a whole book has been written about the components of beer in a way that will be interesting, educational and entertaining to the general reader who enjoys drinking beer, but had no idea how special it was – until now.
The book is now open for pledging at The book has its own page, where there’s a video from me talking more about the ideas in the book, and an exclusive excerpt from one of the chapters I’ve already written, about a visit to the hop farms of Slovenia where I learned about the effects of terroir on hop aroma, and the effects of salami on the human body and soul. There you’ll also see a range of different pledging options if you’d like to get involved. There’s also a Q&A section where I’ll answer any questions you have.
We need around 750 pledges in total. If you like the sound of this book, if you would like your name printed in the back of the book, and if you’d like a special edition of it that is unique to subscribers and will never be available anywhere else, pledge now. The quicker we meet the target, the sooner it will be published!
If you want to find out more about Unbound and how their hybrid model of crowdfunding and mainstream publishing works, see my previous blog post here
This is going to be an exciting adventure. Hope you’ll hop onboard!
* The title is a work in progress. It might change if we can think of a better one.

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I’m writing a new beer book – and testing out a new approach to publishing

The publishing industry is in a state of flux, but new models are emerging – one of which allows me to write my first book about beer in six years. And you can get involved.

A great deal has changed since I had my first book published in 2003. The beer scene, obviously, has changed beyond recognition. And so has publishing. When Man Walks into a Pub came out, there were lots of bookshops but no smartphones, no kindles, and most people didn’t know what a blog was.

Like everything else, publishing has now fragmented. And like many other careers, being a writer means you have to have several different projects on the go at any one time. The books I have published by mainstream publishers are moving further away from beer – and I hope to have confirmation of a new book in that direction in the next few weeks. But the only problem with this is that I do miss writing books about beer…

Which is why I was delighted just before Christmas when a chap called Jason Cooper, who commissioned and edited my first two beer books at Pan Macmillan, dropped me a line to tell me that he is now working for a new kind of publishing venture.

Unbound is a new concept that combines the best bits of crowdfunding and traditional publishing. It was founded by authors who wanted to establish a different way of creating books. The idea is that the author and publisher work together on every aspect of a book idea. We work out the costs of actually bringing the book to market, and we crowdfund that bit of it. So you can pledge £10 and get an e-book that has your name in the back; twenty quid gets you a unique hardback edition, available only to subscribers, and so on. As the pledge levels go up, you get bigger rewards.

But the really cool bit is that once the money is raised and the book is published, it goes into the market just like a normal book does. It gets distributed by Transworld, part of the biggest publishing group in the world, and appears in bookshops, on Amazon etc just like a book for any other publisher. So if you want to pledge to help make the book happen, at the very least you get a special edition with your name in that’s different from the one in the shops. If you find the whole crowdfunding thing is not to your tastes, you can simply wait until the book comes out, and buy the normal edition as you would any other book.

It works best for authors who’ve already got a bit of a following who want to write something different from what their mainstream publisher is after. Unbound is publishing people like Raymond Briggs, Jonathan Meades and David Quantick, a lot of music, food and drink and business titles, and they’ve already done one title made it to last year’s Booker longlist. You can check out the full range of books thing they do, see which ones have met their target and which are still open, and browse what different pledge levels get you, on the site here.

Beer books are perfect for the model. So tomorrow, my first beer book proposal since Hops & Glory will be going up on the Unbound website with an invitation for you to pledge and be part of it. It’s an idea that I’m really excited about, a return to the territory and style of my first three books (although it doesn’t involve me going to sea for three months) and has the additional benefit of me having learned a lot more about beer – and writing – in the intervening years.

Depending on how long it takes to make the pledge target, the book should be published some time in 2016 – there’s still a bit of travel left for me to do this summer, though I have done a lot of it over the past few years.

I’ll be revealing the idea and scope of the book on this blog tomorrow, and linking to the Unbound page where there will be a bit more detail, and a short excerpt from one of the chapters I’ve already written. I’ll also be able to answer any questions you might have.

So see you back here Thursday pm. I hope you’re going to like it.

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Awards galore! Your chance for glory

Whatever drink you make or market, here’s your chance to shine.

I seem to have found myself judging rather more awards schemes at one time than is good for a chap. Each one is fantastic, and the number and scale of them is testament to how healthy and vibrant our drinks scene is. Everything is kicking off right now, so see what takes your fancy below.

Beer Marketing Awards
This is one I helped set up. We launched last November to plug a gap – there are, rightly, many awards celebrating brewing, but none pointing the way in terms of good marketing. There’s never been a better time to celebrate what’s good, whether that’s a big TV ad from a global brewer, brilliant use of social media form a small brewer or a good label design from anyone. Open to any brewer marketing a beer in the UK or any of their agencies, entries close at the end of the month but our special early bird rate of £100 + VAT per entry is on until the end of this week, Friday 16th January. Entry forms are here. Sponsorship opportunities and tickets to the awards dinner on 14th April are also available.

BBC Radio 4 Food and Farming Awards
I’m delighted to be one of the judges in the Best Drinks category for the third year. This cuts across beer, cider, wine, spirits and soft drinks. We want to find British producers who are doing something amazing. Not just producing a wonderful drink – though of course that’s essential – but also creating something original, or telling a great story. Last year two of the three finalists were brewers, and the winner was Thornbridge. The year before, cider maker Once Upon a Tree triumphed. Producers can enter themselves into this award, but most entries come from Radio 4 listeners. If you’re a drinker and a huge fan of a brewer, distiller, cider maker or whatever, this is your chance to nominate them for greatness. Entry forms are here. Entries close at midnight on 26th January so it’s a short window to get your nominations in. I’ll be talking more about it on the Shaun Keaveny show on BBC 6 Music on Thursday morning around 9am. (Other awards categories are also available.)

International Cider Challenge
I’m honoured to have been asked to chair this international cider competition. Any cider maker anywhere in the world can enter, and we just tweaked the categories to reflect the huge diversity of cider styles now getting established around the globe. When I’ve judged this one before, I’ve been surprised by who hasn’t entered. The competition judges ciders blind, side by side, and it’s a fascinating opportunity to compare craft and mainstream cider without knowing what you’re drinking. Entry forms are here, and entries close on 6th March.

Good luck!

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What’s the difference between craft beer snobs and Kopparberg drinkers?

Are we really chasing authenticity, flavour and story? Or just endless novelty?

If you follow North American beer writers on social media (and if not, you should) you might have seen this piece from yesterday, in which formidable beer writer Andy Crouch writes a perfectly balanced profile of Jim Koch, founder of Boston Beer Co, and craft beer’s first billionaire.

Jim, it seems, is pissed off. His brewery has become so big, the hip craft beer joints that arguably wouldn’t be here without his vision will no longer stock his beers. His brand is no longer new, and the beers themselves, according to detractors, are mediocre and middle of the road. And he doesn’t think that’s fair.

While the claim that Boston Beer Co ‘invented’ craft beer can be challenged (the likes of Anchor and Sierra Nevada would have ultimately fathered the current craft beer scene even if Boston hadn’t been there) it is undeniable that BBCo has shaped it more than any other. Jim Koch was a graduate of business school and brand consultancy, and he used the big corporate brewers’ own tactics against them to create a challenger brand that ultimately took craft beer mainstream.

Amid all this brandspeak, what about the beer? Is it really mediocre? Well, not in the eyes of the judges of every single beer competition I’ve ever seen it judged in. It’s always winning prizes.

BBCo’s sin is to brew a wide variety of traditional styles very well, from Bavarian-style lagers to English-style bitters, from wheat beer to Kolsch, from seasonal specialities such as pumpkin ale and Christmas ale to mainstream-style beers that balance flavour and accessibility. Andy’s article says that, reluctantly, Jim has now been forced to brew West Coast-style hop bomb IPAs just like every other craft brewer.

And Jim Koch is not alone. Another piece that went online yesterday features the brewers of Widmer and Deschutes – two more American craft beer pioneers – defending themselves from attacks from the craft beer community. Their crime? Being so good at what they do, they’ve grown substantially to become big businesses.

This all strikes a chord on this side of the Atlantic.

Curiosity about flavour is one of the defining characteristics of people who like interesting beer. It’s always great to find something new. But with so much new stuff around, we can forget the old.

It happened for me with Belgian beer. Ten years ago Trappist ales were the centre of my world. And then I discovered North American IPAs, and then their British counterparts. When I found a dusty bottle of Chimay Blue in my cellar a few years ago, I realised I hadn’t had a Belgian beer in years, and tasting it rekindled an old love affair. Now, Saison Dupont, Westmalle Dubbel, Duvel, Orval, Rochefort and St Bernardus are back at my beery core, despite having no new news, no rock star brewers and little distribution in craft beer bars.

Forgetting old favourites in the rush of the new is one thing. But actively deciding that beers or brewers are boring, bland, middle of the road or sell-outs simply because they have been around for a while, or have grown much bigger than they were, is foolish, snobbish and blinkered.

This is why it pisses me off when craft beer neophytes slag off ‘boring brown beer’ and include all classic best bitter in that description. Sure, some traditional beers are boring and bland, just as some single hop IPAs are monotone and grating after the first pint. But there are wonderful examples of both.

Sure, some breweries do compromise on quality, ingredients and brewing time when they grow and the accountants take control. Others stick steadfastly to their principles. And as Gary Fish of Deschutes says in the second piece linked to above, commercial success can improve quality. Though it pains me to say it, Goose Island IPA is actually a better quality beer since it has been brewed with cutting-edge A-B Inbev technology than it was on knackered old microbrewery plant that couldn’t keep up with volume. Budweiser Budvar remains one of the best quality lagers in the world, thanks in no small part to its 90-day lagering. Timothy Taylor Landlord is one of the finest ales on the planet when kept well. All are dismissed by craft beer purists whose definition of the word ‘craft’ has more to do with scale and novelty than with any measure of skill or quality.

Which brings me to Rekorderlig.

I’m sure most fans of the latest craft breweries would run a mile from any suggestion of similarity to drinkers of a glorified alcopop constructed from industrial alcohol spirit, sugar and artificial flavourings. But the success of the faux-cider alcopops is based entirely on novelty: it’s all about which flavour variant is coming next. As soon as they run out of different combinations of fruit syrups, they’ll run out of road.

Let’s not allow the current momentum in beer go the same way. Because at the moment, it looks awfully similar. One brewer creates a single hop citra IPA, and everyone else does. Then that gets boring and it’s all about ‘saisons’ brewed with the contents of the brewer’s spice cupboard, some of which are about as authentically saison as Rekorderlig is cider. Then it’s endless different takes on Berliner-Weisse. And so on. And woe betide anyone who doesn’t follow the path, who instead simply carries on making great beer that was fashionable five years ago, and sells it in greater quantities now than they did then.

Last year, I was deeply impressed by relatively new kids on the block such as Wiper & True, Siren, Tiny Rebel and Orbit. I was also pleased to see the likes of Camden, Beavertown and Waen reach new levels of scale and skill. But I also wondered why Otley, Redemption and Windsor & Eton didn’t seem to be getting the chatter and buzz they once did.

Thornbridge celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. My adoration for what some argue is the ‘original craft brewery’ is no secret. But I’m starting to hear rumblings about them that would sound depressingly familiar to Boston Beer Co, Deschutes, Sierra Nevada and others: they’re too big. They’re blander than they used to be. They’re selling out and going mainstream.


Craft beer, whatever you want to call it, has gone mainstream. Now, it’s growing up and maturing, and it already has several generations of brewers. Without the pioneers, the rest wouldn’t be here today. And while today’s newbies push the envelope ever further – which is what they should be doing – the bigger, older breweries are getting better at what they do, building bigger names, and providing a bridge between the mainstream and the cutting edge.

If you simply reject their achievements and their vital contemporary role in favour of what’s new this week, whatever that is, you’re not interested in authenticity and story at all. You’re just following the latest fad among your peer group. And that makes you no more discerning, no cooler, no edgier, than the guy pouring his strawberry and lime flavoured ‘cider’ over ice.