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When will the anti-alcohol lobby stop lying about the ‘£21 billion’ cost of alcohol to society?

They’re at it again.

Yesterday a cross-party committee of MPs (working with the professional liars at Alcohol Concern, natch) demanded that health warnings become mandatory on alcohol labels in order to combat what they described as an ‘epidemic’ of alcohol related harm. It claimed the costs of alcohol abuse to society are “ever increasing”. It also said we need a minimum unit price for alcohol, that alcohol advertising needs to be more tightly controlled, and that the drink drive limit should be lowered. 
There’s so much misleading rhetoric, distortion by omission and outright falsehood here it’s difficult to know where to start, but let’s have a go.
The urgent need to combat drink driving is particularly ironic given that another report published yesterday – which obviously didn’t get a fraction of the coverage that the anti-drink scaremongers did – reveals that drink driving deaths have just fallen to their lowest level since records began
There’s also a call to tighten the marketing and promotion of alcohol in order to protect children from the possibility of alcohol abuse. This, despite there being not a single study that has managed to successfully link alcohol advertising and under age drinking, and also despite the news last month that under age drinking has also fallen to the lowest level since records began.

And then there’s the call for ‘sobriety orders’ which we apparently need in order to ‘break the cycle of alcohol and crime, anti-social behaviour and domestic violence. Leaving aside the deeply offensive slur that drinkers are more likely to beat their partners, yet again it’s curious that we need these new measures when violent crime is falling dramatically, and academics who have studied this decline cite a dramatic fall in binge drinking as the main reason for the fall in violent crime.

And overall, I’m confused as to how the cost of alcohol to society can be ‘ever increasing’ when alcohol consumption has fallen to its lowest level for twenty years. (Are you starting to see a pattern here yet?)

The ‘£21 billion’ figure for the cost of alcohol to society continues to be quoted without question across the entirety of our news media. Yet here’s the independent fact verification body FullFact discrediting the figure and declaring it unreliable over two years ago. Two of the reasons they give for this criticism are that they were unable to find anyone who worked on calculating it, and there seems to be no existing record of how the figure was actually worked out. 
This is only the tip of the iceberg as to why £21 billion cannot be relied on, as I’ve described many times before. And on top of all that, if there has been an 18% fall in alcohol consumption since the figure was calculated ten years ago, how the hell can cost of that consumption to society still be as high as it was, let alone ‘ever increasing’? (The figure was nudged up from £20 billion to £21 billion at random, with no recalculation, even as alcohol consumption in the UK went into decline. FullFact were unable to find anyone at the Department of Health who could explain why.)

The biggest part of alcohol’s cost to society according to this figure is the effects of alcohol related crime. As we’ve already seen, violent crime is falling sharply, thanks to a reduction in binge drinking behaviour. So I ask again – how can the cost of that crime to society not also be falling sharply?

When you read the arguments why we need to crack down on our binge drinking ‘pandemic’, all these facts are conveniently ignored. They focus instead on the rise in alcohol related hospital admissions (which, as I’m fond of saying, is highly dubious), and the rise in liver related health complaints. This latter is a cause for concern. But health costs are the smallest part of the £21 billion total. The argument simply falls apart under the mildest scrutiny – yet no one in mainstream media will give it that scrutiny.
There’s no denying that a group of people are drinking harmfully. But the behaviour of that group is not in line with overall population trends. Measures that affect all drinkers – such as minimum pricing or restricted availability – not only punish moderate drinkers; they don’t get to the heart of the problem for harmful drinkers. The problem is not the general availability of price of booze – it it was, the more affluent we are, the more harmfully we’d be drinking. In fact, the opposite is true: demographically, the less affluent you are, the more likely you are to suffer alcohol-related ill-health. 
Health warnings on packs will do nothing to deter hardened drinkers. But they will help demonise alcohol for everyone else. Why is no work being done to discover why a minority are drinking increasingly harmfully when the vast majority of the population – every time they are asked – claim to be cutting down on their alcohol consumption, and falling booze sales suggest they are telling the truth? 
The very people who claim to be most Concerned about Alcohol are betraying those most in need of their help every time they distort the true picture by suggesting we have a society-wide problem when any impartial analysis shows the problem is specific to certain groups, or at the very least shows the problem is in decline, not worsening. I honestly don’t know how they can live with themselves.

Despite all its flaws,  I’ve been told that in the autumn the anti-alcohol lobby will be launching a massive social media campaign to ‘raise awareness’ of the cost of alcohol to society using the hashtag #£21billion, despite knowing full well that that figure has been discredited, and that even if it was accurate when it was first ‘calculated’, it can’t possibly still be right now. MPs from all parties are taking part in a campaign deliberately to misinform, mislead and create undue alarm. 

Who’d have thought?

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The truth about under-age drinking

This time it’s so blatant even the Daily Mail couldn’t distort the truth: the number of school-age children drinking alcohol has fallen to the lowest level since records began. 
The decline has been long, steady and consistent. In recent years, when the figures have been released most media coverage has stated the percentage of school children who admit to having drunk alcohol – 39% according to the latest study – with headlines like “four in ten children boozing! Mass epidemic!” while deliberately avoiding telling you that this figure was, say, 61% in 2003 for example. The liars at Alcohol Concern would resort to using older data to artificially inflate the problem when more recent, freely available data showed the numbers were in sustained decline. The deliberate obfuscation around the issue even led to supposedly reputable newspapers writing headlines claiming that under age drinking was ‘soaring’ when they very data they were reporting on showed it was in fact falling, not rising.
Now the decline is so steep, and so sustained, that there’s no getting away from it. Last week’s headlines were unequivocal – under-age drinking is no longer cool:
  • 39% of pupils said they had drunk alcohol at least once. This continues the downward trend since 2003, when 61% of pupils had drunk alcohol, and is lower than at any time since 1988, when the survey first measured the prevalence of drinking in this age group.
  • 9% of pupils had drunk alcohol in the last week. This proportion has fallen from 25% in 2003.

Bouyed by this undoubted good news, the Portman Group undertook some research among parents of school-age children to learn if they were aware of the fact that their children are not drinking. 
Unsurprisingly given the media coverage the issue receives, 9 out of 10 parents had no idea about the 34% decrease in children who have drunk alcohol. The same proportion were similarly unaware of the 33% decrease in the number of kids who think it is OK to drink alcohol on a weekly basis.
I don’t normally reprint infographics that are sent out as press releases, but I believe this one, summarising the Portman Group’s research, is important and should be disseminated as widely as possible.
What the Portman Group are too polite/professional to suggest is that the national media, fuelled by neo-prohibitionist groups, are deliberately creating concern over an issue that is much smaller than we are being led to believe.
What’s also fascinating is that when parents were informed of the truth, they were asked why they believe attitudes and behaviour around alcohol among children are changing. Overwhelmingly, the most popular answer is that they believe the trade is getting tougher on serving alcohol that might be intended for under-age consumption. In distant second place, with 25% versus 57%, was the suggestion that kids are too busy talking to each other on social media to go out and drink.
Of course, even now, the media can’t quite bring themselves to credit the alcohol industry with responsible behaviour. Last week’s headlines were all about Facebook and Twitter stopping kids from drinking, and the main reason – at least as far as parent’s believe – was ignored. 
Admittedly the social media angle is a more interesting headline because it says something about social change. But I think it’s a red herring. Think about it: where do kids use social media these days? In their bedrooms? Maybe. But also on the bus, in the park, on the street – everywhere they go, including the places where kids traditionally sneak booze. Social media is mobile, and its use doesn’t preclude traditional under age drinking behaviour.
I’m not saying the trade can claim all the credit. I do believe there is a social change going on. If I had to guess, I’d say kids seeing their parents necking a stress-relieving bottle of wine or two when they get home from work every evening kind of takes the glamour off drinking. When I was a kid, boozing was something that happened in pubs and working men’s clubs, places from which I was forbidden, that had a mystery and an allure. Now we’re much more likely to drink at home, in front of our kids. Through their eyes, I doubt we look as cool as we think we do.
Either way, we can now look forward to the end of scare stories about kids drinking themselves to death, illustrated with picture of cask ale being served at the Great British Beer Festival. Right?

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Alliterative Book Review: Boak and Bailey’s ‘Brew Britannia’

Imagine if the history of rock music was done in the style
of beer writing:
“Unknown Pleasures by
Joy Division was recorded at Strawberry Studios, Stockport, between 1st
and 17th April 1979. It is 39 minutes and 24 seconds long and consists
of ten songs, which contain drums, bass, guitar, synthesisers and vocals, with
added special effects.”
There would then be an online debate about whether or not
the use of synthesisers meant that the record was ‘real indie’ or not, segueing
into a huge disagreement about whether the album should best be described as
‘indie’ or ‘goth’, or perhaps neither as, being completely original and
ground-breaking, it was in fact ‘not to style’.
I thought about this when reading How Soon is Now? – a
definitive history of indie music by Richard King. Read a biography of a band,
or a sweeping review such as King’s that seeks to contextualise and explain a
musical movement, and it’s not about what instruments they played or how big
the studio was: it’s about the people, how they were influenced previous bands,
other artistic forms or just what was in their air at the time, and how music
made them and their fans feel.
‘Wouldn’t it be brilliant if someone wrote a history of
craft/good beer following the conventions of music journalism rather than beer
writing?’ I thought. ‘Not writing so much about cascade hops and the structure
of the industry, but more broadly about the trends and most of all the people,
the decisions and sacrifices they made, the chances they took, the ideas and
creativity that drove them. That would be a good book. I should give that a go.”
Of course, I never did. Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey did it
instead. Sort of.
Boak and Bailey are two of my favourite beer bloggers. I
love their combination of obvious passion and clear reason. Occasionally their blog
posts can be a little too po-faced and navel-gazing, but their air of slight
detachment means they usually end up calling things right much more often than
most other bloggers, this writer included.
Their first book, Brew Britannia (Aurum Press, £12.99) seeks
to explain ‘the strange rebirth of British beer’ from the 1960s to the present
day. While I’d quibble over the adjective ‘strange’ (interest in beer has
mirrored – and mostly followed – a similar rediscovery of flavour, tradition
and experimentation across many food and drink categories) it’s a smart
approach. Many beer history books (my own included) take the long view and deal only briefly
with the modern period. Whereas that idea of writing a history of craft beer
would probably have started around the early 2000s, would have been much too ‘of its
time’ and would have dated badly.
What we have here instead is a story of beer gradually
becoming something worth caring about, something to be appreciated – at first
by retired World War Two officers looking for an excuse for a piss-up, through
the foundation of CAMRA to the discovery of new ideas in beer, the growth of
the brewpub and the microbrewery, and finally, yes, the modern craft beer
phenomenon, in all its wonderful, frustrating, murky glory.
Anyone who follows B&B’s conjoined Twitter account will
be aware of how many months of painstaking research went into this book. It
seems as though they’ve read every old issue of What’s Brewing, tracked down every living person who has ever
brewed beer on a small scale in the last fifty years, as well as the surviving families
of those who are no longer with us, and then cross-referenced everything,
caveating any claim they were not able to wholly substantiate. In an age where
some observers obsess over tiny details rather than seeing the big picture, the
working here is meticulous.
But the big picture is there too. I knew that in its early
days, CAMRA had a fresher approach than the strict orthodoxy that binds it
today. But I had no idea that the founders didn’t even know what cask beer was
until the campaign had all ready formed with a semi-serious purpose to
revitalise ‘ale’, a word chosen simply because ‘it seemed solidly Northern and
down to earth – less pretentious… than beer’.
And modern ideas of ‘craft’ have much earlier roots than I
ever realised. I was aware that Sean Franklin, was using cascade hops at Rooster’s last
century, but had no idea that his craft – and that of others – went back to the
early eighties. Or that the current arguments between big brewers and
microbrewers have been raging in one form or another since the mid-1970s.
Sometimes the formal tone becomes a little stilted – the
insistence on putting anything from ‘real ale’ and ‘world beer’ to ‘greasy
spoon’, ‘foodie’ and even ‘tasting’ in ‘inverted commas’ often jars and
occasionally evokes those high court judges who need to ask someone to explain
what this ‘rap music’ is that the ‘youngsters’ are listening to.
But on the whole, the approach works. You need a steady hand
on the tiller when trying to unpick the various internecine squabbles and
Judean People’s Popular Front posturings of CAMRA, and give an accurate record
of the campaigns evolution. You need someone who doesn’t use words and phrases
like ‘squabbles’ and ‘Judean People’s Popular Front’. I’m sure there will be
some who feel their particular point of view on the use of gas dispense or
BrewDog’s Portman Group battles haven’t been given enough room, but no one on any side of the debate can
go so far as to be upset by such a clear-eyed and dispassionate account of
controversial and often confusing subjects.
What stops the detachment becoming boring is the
all-important contextualisation. Having just learned about Ian Nairn and hisideas of ‘Subtopia’ though an event at our recent literary festival, it was
fascinating to see how his ideas extended to beer – a passion that became his
eventual undoing. We learn that it was an appreciation of wine that eventually
led Sean Franklin to brew with cascade hops, that the Firkin chain – which had
an incredible influence before it was bought and cheapened into oblivion – was
originally a product of one man’s intuition and creativity. And that possibly
the most brilliant craft brewer you’ve never heard of (if you’re under fifty)
is now revolutionising the principles of banana growing – in Ireland.
Some writers who were quicker than me at reading and
reviewing this book have commented that it goes downhill at the end – that the
account of the last decade or so feels a little rushed and scrappy. Zak
suggested it’s perhaps too soon to analyse what’s just happened with the same
insight as things that happened twenty or thirty years ago. The last few
chapters do read more like blog posts from the end of 2013 rather than a
complete account of trends. But that’s OK too: the story is open-ended. It
hasn’t finished yet. Interestingly, many of my beloved music books – including
How Soon is Now – neatly avoid this problem by telling the story from one date
to another, flagging up an artificial cut-off point after which the
protagonists don’t necessarily live happily ever after, and the struggle
continues. I really don’t think that was an option here for a book that was
published as the story it tells is yet to reach its dramatic peak. 
If I had written my version of this story it would have been bloodier and more chaotic than this one: more evangelical, more
critical, more involved. I’d have made a lot more of the indie music analogy, and
gone Big Picture to the point of wilful digression.
Which is why I’m glad Boak and Bailey got there first and
did it their way. We need this account, in this form, if we are to fully
understand where beer is today, how it got here, and from there, to start to
speculate about where it might go next.
While they were pitching this book to publishers, Boak and
Bailey wrote a review of Shakespeare’s Local in which they kindly said I was a ‘writer
[publishers] think has really nailed it in commercial terms’ when it comes to
beer books. Here I can return the compliment by saying this is a book that I
wish I had written, but was beaten to it by people who have done a better job than I would have.                                                               

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Crap Beer – it’s the future

Friday, late afternoon. Stranded in Chesterfield waiting for The Beer Widow, who is attempting to come up the M1 from London to meet me before we go on to the Great Peak Weekender at Thornbridge. The journey will eventually take her seven hours (it should take no more than three), so sitting in Chesterfield station’s dispiriting concourse isn’t an option. 
I follow signs to the town centre and walk for about ten minutes without seeing a single shop, pub, restaurant or commercial premises of any description. I’m dragging a suitcase. It starts to rain, hard, and I’m getting desperate. There is no one on the streets: it’s like 28 Days Later, only less pleasant.
Eventually a find a pub. In the window it advertises a ‘wide range of cask ales’. I smile to myself and go in. On the bar there are just two handpumps: one serving Doom Bar, the other Greene King IPA. But there’s a half pint glass over the GK pump, so my ‘wide range’ consists of Doom Bar. As I occasionally do at times like this, I order a pint of Kronenbourg. It’s utterly undrinkable, so I drag my suitcase back into the rain.
A little further down the street, I spy a Marston’s logo outside another pub, the Crooked Spire. Oh well, a pint of Pedigree will do. I walk in. Once again, there are just two handpumps on the bar. They look like they haven’t been used for some time. It’s not that the pumpclips are turned around: there are no pumpclips at all. The keg fonts are Budweiser, Becks Vier, Strongbow.
“Do you have any cask ale?” I ask.
“No,” replies the barman. 
“Do you have any Marston’s beers at all?” I follow up.
He just shakes his head. 
For only the second time in recent memory, I say apologetically that I’ll have to try somewhere else because there’s nothing on the bar I want to drink.
I walk a little further, starting to feel desperate, and finally I find the Blue Bell, advertising not just cask ales, but also craft beers on a permanent sign just outside the door. Relieved, I go inside.

The whole pub stinks of BO. Undeterred, I walk to the bar. Here is the standard selection of two handpumps: this time Hobgoblin and Jenning’s Cumberland Ale. The weighty pump clips suggest they are permanent and unchanging. I look along the bar for the craft keg fonts. Finding none, I scan the fridges, but there’s only Bud, Becks, Bulmer’s and Koppaberg.

“Are you looking for anything in particular?” asks the very friendly barmaid.

“There’s a sign outside saying you sell craft beer,” I reply.

She looks confused. “Sorry?”

“Craft Beer?”

“What? CRAP beer?”

“No, CRAFT beer.”

“Oh. What’s that?”

“There’s a sign by the door saying you sell it.”

“I’m sorry love, I don’t even know what craft beer is. I’ve never heard of it.”

“I think they mean that,” says one of the regulars at the bar, pointing to the Hobgoblin. 

But that would come under cask ale. They say they sell both craft beer and cask ale outside, I want to say. But I’m too confused. Could it be that someone who works here has never read the signage outside the front door? And why is it there anyway? 
“I’ll have a pint of Kronenbourg thanks.”
*

Over an excellent weekend at Thornbridge, I’m informed by many people that Chesterfield has some brilliant pubs selling a fantastic range of beers. I have absolutely no reason to doubt them. I just managed to pick a very unlucky route through the town centre.

On our way back home on Sunday, we decide to try again, and find a nice country pub on the outskirts of the city that advertises food served from 12 noon to 3.30pm. It’s now 2.30pm. The pub is about half full – certainly not busy.
“I’m sorry, we’ve run out of food,” says the bar person.
“What, no food left at all?”
“No, absolutely none.” 
Some pubs simply don’t deserve to stay in business. And I really need to get my pub radar fixed.

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Beer and cider and music and books and food in North London

I don’t often do sponsor-heavy sales blurby posts, but this is is a special exception each year. Apologies if you can’t make it to North London next weekend…

It’s nearly here – the fifth Stoke Newington Literary Festival takes place all around N16 from 6th to 8th June – that’s in just over a week!

The festival is the creation of my wife Liz, and is organised by her, me, and a bunch of die-hard volunteers. It’s a charitable venture that aims to improve literacy in the Borough of Hackney. More than that, it’s about everyone enjoying ideas, debate, comedy, and brilliant words of all kinds. Last year Irvine Welsh – one of our headliners – described it as “The real London LitFest,”and Time Out said it’s “Like Hay-on-Wye, but in Hackney.”

With me involved, there’s always a strong boozy element – so here are the bits that might be of interest to readers of this blog.

Drinks Sponsors
We receive no formal funding for the festival, and we keep ticket prices lower than anywhere else we know to encourage the widest possible access. The support I blag from friends in the drinks industry to run bars at events is therefore what makes the festival viable. If you come, every beer or cider you buy helps a small child to read! Budweiser Budvar are our main sponsor, and last year they introduced the Budvar Marquee – a fantastic, informal bar space where we have a rolling, loose programme of authors, poets, comedians DJs and musicians chatting away while you enjoy a quality pint.

Local favourites the Bikini Beach Band are back to do another set:

and Phill Jupitus will be back with his mate poet Tim Wells to spin some platters that matter and do a bit of dad dancing for your edification. 
The marquee is outside Stoke Newington Town Hall and you don’t need a ticket for any of the festival events to soak up the buzz and free events. (You do have to pay for the booze though.)
Our other key drinks sponsors are Aspall, who very kindly provide us with top quality cider, and local brewer Redemption who have been with us from the start, supplying a specially brewed festival cask ale that’s light, hoppy, and perfect for what will hopefully be a lovely summer weekend. Talking of which… 

Name the Festival Beer!
Andy from Redemption is routinely declared the nicest man in brewing. And not just by us.

Each year he brews a special festival cask ale and donates it to us, and since year two of the festival we’ve run a competition to name the festival beer. It’s usually a dreadful pun on one of the acts or strands in the festival. Edgar Allen Poe lived in Stoke Newington, and the year we commemorated this we went for ‘Cask of the Red Death’. When Alexei Sayle headlined, ‘Alexei’s Ale’ was an obvious winner.

Get the idea?

OK, this year’s programme is more diverse and eclectic than ever before, but it does have a strong music strand running through it. Our closing headliner is Ray Davies. Yes, the real Ray Davies out of the Kinks! If you can think of a beery pun based around Waterloo Sunset, You Really Got Me, All Day And All The Night or any other of the songs this man wrote that changed the face of British music, let us know. We’ve also got Thurston Moore out of Sonic Youth, because he now lives locally (and drinks Guinness or locally brewed hoppy pale ales). We’ve got Viv Albertine out of The Slits. We’ve got Ben Watt out of Everything But The Girl. All talking about books about music. Or check out the rest of the programme and see if anyone else inspires. It doesn’t have to be a pun. It just usually turns out that way.

The winner gets free beers and entry to an event of their choice at the festival. Or just the satisfaction of knowing hundreds of people will be saying your pun as a bar call if you can’t make it along. Send entries to info@stokenewingtonliteraryfestival.com, marked ‘beer names’.

Beer and Music Matching – Sunday 8th, 7pm

I’ve been doing a lot about this recently, and my first event was at this festival two years ago. Now it’s back, bigger and better, with added neuroscience and real time experiments. Discover how your senses overlap and often deceive you. Learn how memory ‘primes’ your appreciation of flavour. And experience the Pavlovian brilliance of Duvel vs. the Pixies. Tickets available here, and the price includes a flight of outstanding beers. The event is on just before Ray Davies starts, in the venue just around the corner from his. Trust me, we will be finishing on time so I can get to see Ray too.

The Craft Cider Revolution – Saturday 7th, 4pm
As part of our food and drink strand, last year I hosted a panel discussion with local brewers. This year I thought I’d do the same with cider – but are there any local cider makers? Well, yes – London Glider make cider with apples foraged inside London – there are more of those than you thought, and the resulting cider is excellent. They’ll be joining me on stage along with the somewhat less local Andy Hallett of Hallet’s Cider, who will be bringing some of his brilliant ciders up from South Wales to try. (If you live locally but can’t make this event, don’t miss Andy’s Meet The Cider Maker this Saturday, May 31st at the Jolly Butchers). I’ll have some special stuff from our sponsors Aspall too. Tickets available here, and the price includes enough cider samples to give you a nice afternoon buzz.

The food and drink venue also has the legendary Claudia Roden being interviewed by Valentine Warner, Julian Baggini talking about the philosophy of food and drink, and the brilliant Gastrosalon – food confessions chaired by Radio 4’s Rachel McCormack.

It’s going to be our best festival yet. Please join us if you can.

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Shiny shiny cider shiny

Look at the shiny. Go on, look at it. 

I think I may just about be recovering from a two-week long hangover. That’s the only reason I can think of why I haven’t written this blog before now.

On Tuesday 13th May, my compadre Bill Bradshaw and I were named winners of the Drink Book of the Year at the Fortnum & Mason Food and Drink Awards, for our book World’s Best Cider.
This is a deeply gratifying award to win. For one thing, it’s very heavy and shiny. Judged purely in terms of melted down scrap value, it’s worth more than my six Guild of Beer Writers Awards tankards put together. It works far better than those awards as a doorstop. On the downside, it’s not nearly as good as those tankards for drinking warm Efes out of in a kebab shop at 3am as you try in vain to keep the post-award party vibe going. 
What was even more gratifying was that this is, as the name suggests, an award that judges books on all types of drink. We were in a shortlist of three, up against a book about wine and a book about champagne. Every single judge on the panel from the drinks world was a wine writer. And when we stepped onto the fourth floor of Fortnum and Mason for the drinks and canapé reception, the only drinks being served were champagne and rosé wine. 
After a couple of remarks that could have been interpreted as hints by an optimistic dreamer, and one too many phone calls from the organisers just checking that we were both definitely coming, I’d started to get my hopes up. But as I took my glass of rosé across a jungle-thick carpet to admire flower arrangements that probably cost more than my house, I thought, ‘Under this brand, in this place, there is absolutely no way a book on cider is going to beat a book about wine or a book about champagne. No way.’
But we did. And we were quite happy about it.
Playing it cool for the cameras.
Apart from succeeding in a much broader (and posher) arena than I’m used to, what was so gratifying was the reaction from judges I had very, very wrongly assumed would be sniffy about our subject. I still occasionally bump into people who think the idea of writing about beer is humorously absurd. Not as much as I used to. But for many, the idea of a serious book on cider is laughable. 
Not so for chefs, food writers and wine writers. 
I won’t repeat the best complements we had (unless you ask me in the pub) because this would be an insufferably smug blog entry if I did. Safe to say people who write about other drinks and get much more attention for them are genuinely excited about cider and its potential to be explored in more detail.
Following the ceremony we were ushered to the basement bar in Fortnum’s for the after-party. Now, I’ve been to a great many beer events. I’ve seen people get pissed at parties. I thought beer writers, brewers and publicans could really put it away. But nothing I’ve seen in a decade in the beer world prepared me for the sheer almighty CARNAGE that happens when the broader food and drink industry gets together to party. Perhaps it’s because champagne gets you pissed quicker. Maybe it’s because the only food on offer did a far better job of looking beautiful than of filling you up. But I have never seen so many people get so drunk, so quickly, in one space.
At one point Stephen Fry popped in for what I’m guessing was a quiet drink. His face registered surprise at seeing us all there, briefly, before being torn apart by sotted chefs and fucked-up food writers clawing at him for selfies. He held his ground and chatted like a hero for as long as he could stand, and was then literally chased out of the building by several people who had been waiting their turn when he decided to flee. 
The Hairy Bikers – also winners on the night – stuck it out with us. Dave Myers has read my books and says he likes them so this didn’t feel too much of an imposition:

L-R: Hairy Pedestrian, Hairy Biker, unhairy publisher who believed in the cider book and made it happen 

The bar stocked one beer – Meantime Lager – and no ciders. None at all. There’s still a lot of work to do to get people to reconsider good quality cider and take it seriously outside its current niche. But this night felt like a start. I’ll be suggesting a few brands to Fortnum’s that they might want to stock now this has happened. We’re talking to another TV chef about ideas around cider. It feels like things might happen, and if feels like there’s a broader appetite to learn more about this misunderstood drink.

Thank you so much to Jo Copestick (above with Dave) who has been hassling me to work on a book with her for years and guided us into shaping the book that needed to be written about cider even when we wanted to write a different one. And thanks to everyone else at Jacqui Small Publishing who made it happen. And thanks to my co-conspirator, who emailed me out of the blue one day, never having met me, and informed me that we needed to work on a book together. Turns out the mad scrumpy-necking bastard was right.

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With great beer comes great responsibility

I didn’t want to write this post, but I have to.

It comes on the back of me breaking my own cardinal rule about not behaving like a dick at the bar.

In a version of that classic “Do you know who I am?” thing that spoilt celebs do, there are often times when I’m tempted to counter claims of “There’s nothing wrong with that pint” or “Well, no one else has complained” by pointing out that I know the brewer of said beer, have judged it competitions, written tasting notes for it, perhaps even helped brew it myself. It’s a horrible situation where even though I might be right, I would still be an insufferable, pompous prick for pulling rank in this way. So I have always resisted the urge.

Until last week.

I was staying in a hotel in Bristol. The Bristol Hotel in fact. I went into the bar and was utterly blown away by the range of beers on offer. Not the widest or best range of beers I’ve seen by a long way, but certainly among the very best I’ve ever seen in a British hotel bar, where usually it’s a choice of Stella, Becks Vier and Boddington’s on tap. This place has Freedom as its pouring lager, a couple of decent craft keg ales, and a wide range of bottled beers from Bristol Beer Factory.

I ordered a bottle of BBF’s excellent Southville Hop. The barmaid began pouring it into a branded glass. ‘This is excellent,’ I thought.

Then, halfway down, she swirled the bottle to agitate the yeast, and poured me a cloudy beer with bits in it.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“That’s how it’s supposed to be poured,” she replied.

“No it isn’t, can I have another one where you don’t do that?” I asked.

She referred me to the duty manager, who looked far too young to be out this late.

“It’s meant to be poured like that,” he said. “We’ve been trained.”

I spotted bottles of Bristol’s Hefeweizen in the fridge, and understanding dawned.

“Ah, no,” I said, “They probably showed you how to pour the Hefe with a swirl, to agitate the yeast – it’s a tradition for that style. But you don’t do it with an IPA.”

“Look,” he said angrily, “I’ve done a training course with the brewery. And I’m telling you that’s how you pour this beer!”

And that’s when I cracked.

“No, you look,” I replied, “I’m one of the UK’s leading beer writers. I’ve written a whole book about IPA. And I’m doing an event with the brewer of this beer tomorrow. And I’M telling YOU that it’s not poured this way.”

Rhetorically, I had won the argument. But not really. The barchild had proven himself to be a twat. I had proven myself to be a bigger twat. There were no winners. So I ordered a pint of lager instead, which thankfully came without bits in.

There are of course debates to be had about the desirability of swirling yeast in a bottle conditioned beer. Coopers Sparkling Ale use this as their serving gimmick. (I did check with Bristol Beer Factory, and they don’t.) But in any case, with any beer, the accepted norm in the UK is to try to pour a bottle conditioned beer without the yeast. And if you DO want the yeast, that is a matter of personal choice. This is why most good bar staff leave it to the customer to pour their own bottled beer as they see fit.

I still think it’s wonderful that the Bristol Hotel stocks such excellent beers. And I think it’s amazing that the brewery offers training to bar staff. But here was a classic example of a little bit of training having the opposite effect to that intended.

The downside of the craft beer revolution is that such hazards are commonplace. I hear stories of brewers trying their own beer in craft beer bars, taking it back because it’s cloudy, and being informed that the beer is unfiltered and is meant to be served that way. If the brewer wants to explain that he created the beer, and that he goes to great lengths to have the beer served sparkling clear, he’s running the risk of emulating my twattish behaviour.

Recently I was served a pint of porridge in a local Cask Marque accredited pub. When I took it back, the barman poured another pint from the same tap, the same barrel, and said, “No look, this one’s the same. It’s meant to be like that.” I’ve almost stopped drinking cask in London craft beer pubs, because so many seem to think that it’s OK to serve a beer as soon as it’s dropped clear. They proudly tell you “This one only came in this morning!”which I find confusing given that every single piece of cask ale cellar advice I’ve ever seen insists the beer should condition for three days in the cellar before it’s ready to serve. Of course, this varies from beer to beer. But hop-forward cask beers in particular have a jagged, pixellated flavour when they have not been given time to condition.

Then there are the bars and pubs with six handpulls, all of them with pump clips turned backwards, because on a busy shift where a lot of beer is being drunk, there’s not a single member of staff on the premises who knows how to change a cask.

The situation is often little better with craft keg: beers pour cloudy, flat and lifeless, and because it’s ‘craft’, most bartenders and drinkers, for whim this is a new experience, assume it’s meant to be like that.

At six quid a pint, this simply won’t do.

Sometimes a lackadaisical approach to beer quality is born of simple greed and cynicism. America may be the home of late stage consumer capitalism, but over there, there is at least a belief in the value of capitalism, and pride in a job done well.  Other European countries are less aggressively capitalist than us. We seem to have this uniquely British combination of belief in the primacy of profit, but a cold cynicism of achieving it by any means necessary, preferably not involving genuine hard work.

In other pubs, intentions are good and honest, but the sheer hard work of trying to stay afloat as a pub means that training in speciality beer styles and optimal serves is simply too difficult to achieve.

Either way, it’s just not good enough.

Craft beer, whether it’s in bottle, keg or cask, is capable of saving pubs and making them profitable. It sells at a price premium. It justifies that premium because it is better beer. Because it is better beer, it deserves to be kept properly. If you cannot serve it properly, you should not be selling it – and you certainly shouldn’t be selling it at a premium.

It’s a simple as that.

If you think you can’t train your staff, or it’s not worth doing so because they move on quickly, then consider that staff who have better training have better job satisfaction, and stick around longer. If it means you have to pay then more, then do so – you’re asking them to do a more specialised job than their counterparts in a bog standard pub selling Fosters and John Smith’s Smoothflow, and your prices already reflect this.

If you went to a fine restaurant and your sommelier was a nineteen year-old who knew nothing about wine, poured your bottle of Margaux badly and didn’t offer you a taste first, you’d be appalled. But we still accept similar standards in bars that boast of being beer specialists, that have accreditation and even awards saying they are.

Any fool can phone up James Clay and ask for a selection of interesting beers. That doesn’t make you a great beer bar. If you want to be known for great beer, you have to go further than the average pub and take some pride in how the beer is kept and served. If you don’t, then as the price of a pint of craft beer increasingly takes the piss, the bubble will very quickly burst.

With great beer comes great responsibility: if you can’t look after it properly, if you’re not prepared to learn how it should be served, then don’t fucking stock it. You haven’t earned the right.

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Why do trumpets taste like hops?

Five years ago I read an article about a study at Heriot Watt university that had found different styles of music could ‘improve’ the flavour of wine. In a controlled experiment, wines paired with the ‘right’ style of music tasted 40-60% better than those paired with the ‘wrong’ style.

Obviously I stole the idea and applied it to beer. There’s a broader range of styles and flavours to play with, and music and beer as I know them go together much better than music does with wine – both have a communality and approachability to them, with the option of going for more obscure, difficult stuff if you prefer.

I started having fun matching things by theme, season and mood, but also terroir, attitude and a slight smidgeon of taking the piss.

Eventually though, I was put in touch with neuroscientists who showed me there’s much more to it than that. Neuroscience in its current form has been around for less than twenty years, because contemporary brain imaging technology, which shows us what bits of the brain light up in response to different stimuli, is very new. Incredibly, in the 21st century we are only just starting to figure our how the brain really works. And we’re learning that there’s much more to our so-called ‘five senses’ than previously thought. They overlap, support each other, and sometimes become confused or blurred. Unwittingly, I’m conducting experiments that are not too dissimilar to what’s happening in the new field of neurogastronomy, or would be if I conducted them more carefully and with less mucking about.

This has set me off on an exploration of the senses and how the brain works. I never did any science subjects at school or college after the age of fourteen, and now I’m learning to love the laboratory all over again, reading up on everything from soundwaves and molecular gastronomy to the philosophy of aesthetics and the ‘Proustian effect’ of sense memory.

My talk on beer and music is sprouting all sorts of new tentacles. I rewrite it after every single show, taking on board what I’ve learned, bolting on new experiments, refining the pairings, polishing up the presentation, ditching the bits that don’t work. Having gone from ditching most of the show each time and starting from scratch, it’s now starting to feel pretty solid.

I’ve no idea where this will end up – as a book, radio show or event at the Edinburgh Fringe (all have been suggested to me) – but right now it’s becoming one of my core obsessions. At the heart of it are six pairings of great beers with music tracks that I love. They go together in different ways had tell us different things about how we perceive the world around us.

Some audience members think the whole thing is rubbish. Others find it seismic in changing their perceptions. Some cynics are won over; some enthusiasts go away confused and unsure. Whatever happens, and however much you buy the central conceit, it’s an enjoyable hour of great beer and great tunes, with added science, anecdote and trivia.

I’m doing my next event at Bristol Food Connections on Friday 2nd May, in front of a very special audience which you can be part of. Tickets are still available and are only £5 including beers.

The following week I’m repeating the event in London, at the Ivy House. This pub hit the headlines a couple of years ago when it was seemingly doomed to closure, but was saved when the community bought it. It’s now a thriving craft beer-focused pub with a legendary musical heritage. I’m honoured to be be matching beer and music there on 8th May. Tickets have just gone on sale here.

Please come along and help me create a beer tasting event quite unlike any you’ve witnessed before.

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‘Imperial’

In February I was in Chicago for the US Cider Conference. It was massively exciting, because craft cider in America is where craft beer was twenty years ago. It’s impossible not to draw some parallels between the two drinks. 
Because of the way the two scenes have grown in the States – with all the energy and hunger of new discovery and a bold ambition to push flavour into new places that sometimes, just occasionally, outpaces the brewer/cidermaker’s level of skill – they are much closer than they are in the UK. 
Sure, over here CAMRA represents both beer and cider to some extent, but at the craft end of things the two scenes seem quite separate – almost hostile to each other at times, as I have discovered since I began straddling both. 
In the US, craft beer and craft cider walk hand in hand to a much greater extent. Many ambitious young cidermakers have a craft brewing background. The growth of dry-hopped cider is only the most visible example of this. 
But cider still has a way to go, and that’s what makes it so exciting. 
One session we had at the conference was titled “Defining cider style by flavour.” It as based around this booklet:
by a guy called Dave Selden, who runs a beer blog and creates these stylish publications for a range of drinks. I enjoyed hanging out with Dave at the Cider Summit – a public event the day after CiderCon finished – talking among other things about how you define style.
This is something that obsesses Americans more than anyone else. In beer, before there was a debate about the definition of craft beer, there was a debate about beer styles that was just as tedious and pointless. I ridiculed it and said my final word on beer style back in 2010, but anyone who thinks there are nearly 200 different styles of beer (or is it even more now?) has far too much time on their hands.
On the other hand, I have to agree that cider needs more style definition than it currently has. The whole point of writing World’s Best Cider was that no one had looked at cider from a global perspective before, comparing the different traditions that exist around the globe. With a few exceptions, everyone has been defining cider within their own cultural frame of reference. The good thing about the Americans getting involved is that they instinctively look everywhere they can for inspiration and education. America already has a better range of international ciders readily available in craft bars and good bottle shops than you’ll find in any other country. A little bit of that rigorous analysis of style – not too much mind – might be very useful.
So back to the event where we were using Dave’s new cider booklet to try to analyse style by flavour. 
It was an open session, with each table sharing several different ciders and trying to agree on what they were like. The booklet gave us a flavour wheel and a bunch of other classifications for pinning down what was in the bottle.

It was improvisational, spontaneous, and very enjoyable. One cider was described by one table as a ‘porch’ cider, because it was the kind of thing you wanted to drink on a rocking chair while watching the sunset. The guy from Angry Orchard was clearly miffed when few people agreed that the cider he had brought to show was ‘French farmhouse’ in style. (To me, it was nowhere near tannic enough and had a hint of Spanish-style sourness.)

The highlight of the session though was when we got to one table who, after some conversation, pronounced that this cider should be classed as ‘Imperial’, with little explanation as to why. Immediately, various other tables rolled their eyes, sniggered and said, “Huh, brewers!”

It was a perfect moment: highlighting the various different factions that exist within craft cider; craft brewers parodying themselves by showing how utterly meaningless the ‘imperial’ classification is when divorced from its context; and revealing that none of us really had a clue about what to call this decent, drinkable but unmemorable cider.

By the end of the session we had picked various faults in the tasting wheel (which can be easily fixed). We were no closer to a framework of cider style by flavour. I wasn’t sure that Dave’s approach was right, but the session had convinced me that my own attempt to devise a set of cider styles was hopelessly inadequate – a mishmash that defines some styles by their region of origin, others by production methods or ingredients, and still others by flavour.

Back to the drawing board for all of us then. But taxonomy has never been so much fun.