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Barcelona II: This Time it’s Sidra

Food of Los Dioses

Around the corner from La Cerveteca in Barcelona’s Bari Gotic I stumble (literally) upon La Socarenna, a small bar built into an arch, offering productes asturias y catalans. They make cider in Asturias, and sure enough, the front window is piled high with thick green bottles. I go in.

An ancient transistor radio behind the bar gives football commentary that sounds like it’s being broadcast by bees. A grey haired man outside on the step takes his time finishing his cigarette before slowly walking back in and heading behind the bar to serve me. There’s one other customer standing at the bar.

I ask for sidra and there’s one choice: Camin, a brand from Trabanco. Mainstream stuff as far as the Asturians are concerned, but a far cry from Bulmer’s, Magner’s or Woodchuck. It comes in 660ml bottles. The bartender pops the cork and hands me the bottle and a traditional sidra glass, thin and delicate with a wide mouth, perfect for ‘throwing’ the sidra in the traditional Asturian way. I order a bowl of cockles to go with it, and am in heaven.

The other guy at the bar is throwing his sidra properly. This is the Spanish tradition: sidra is flat and very acidic compared to other cider traditions. The idea is to throw the cider into the glass from a great height. It explodes onto the side of the thin glass, which sings with the impact. This aerates the cider, giving it a champagne-like moussy texture and softening the acidity to something pleasant. That’s the first swig anyway – anything left in the glass after thirty seconds is poured away.

This means traditional sidra drinking is an active pursuit: small mouthfuls poured and drunk quickly, so you soon lose track of how fast you are drinking.

The floor of La Socarenna is tiled, and right at the foot of the bar there’s a neat drainage channel. But this must be for show: it’s perfectly dry, and the guy further down the bar has a black wooden bucket at his feet. He throws his sidra confidently from above his head, over the bucket, spilling a few drops.

I know how it should be done. I compromise, carefully pouring from about a foot over the glass. It’s not a bad first effort.

The sidra tastes beautiful, more like the easy end of Somerset cider rather than the traditional ascetic Asturian liquid some cider makers insist is just vinegar. There’s that lovely soft, woozy apple you get from scrumpy, and the acidity is perfect for me – enough to make your palate perk up without attacking it. Similarly, the farmyard notes are strong enough to suggest character, not so much that your palate is transported to the cowsheds.

Together with the cockles, it’s perfect: seafood and clean, crisp acidity together are so simple yet so right. One urges you back to the other, until you’re stabbing with your cocktail stick in a frenzy. As typical bar fayre, it beats the crap out of lager and crisps, and is no more expensive.

While I’m writing about drainage and buckets, three very heavily made up English girls stop to look at the menu outside. The surly barman is transformed, drifting over to the window with a big grin he has kept well hidden until now. The girls move on and the grin disappears. The other guy has finished his sidra and left. The barman goes back to conspicuously ignoring me, standing with his back to me, the only customer in the bar.

The sidra is 6% and it’s doing its job well. Half a bottle in, from nowhere I’m completely pissed. And in my half-hearted, very English attempt at throwing my cider, I manage to pour it all over my notebook. My cover is blown. I’ve gone from ‘Obviously I’m not from Asturias but I am aware of the tradition and I’m trying to demonstrate that even though I know I can’t do it properly’ to ‘Basically, I’m just a twat.’

I now have about a quarter of my bottle left. Another couple arrive and order a bottle of Camin. A Spanish couple. They sit at a table and she throws the cider from about a foot over her glass, without spilling a drop. He pours his nervously, right over the top of the glass. They both look uncomfortable and transfer their attention to a bowl of olives. The methodical spearing of shiny green morsels is a skill they are both proficient in, and it becomes their entire world. Meanwhile I stand behind them, writing furiously in my sodden notebook at 11pm on a Saturday night, pretending to myself that I look inconspicuous.

It’s brilliant that this sidra tradition exists, and that people are aware of it but have different levels of comfort with it, they’re not quite sure about it. It feels more authentic somehow that something that is ruthlessly observed and policed.

I pour the last of my sidra timidly, like the guy at the table, neck it and make the universal sign for la cuenta, secretly pleased that my new notebook is now impregnated with smelly booze, and stagger, soused, into the night.

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Barcelona discovers craft beer: becomes even more perfect

I can’t believe it’s a decade since my first visit to Barcelona, as part of the research for my second book, Three Sheets to the Wind
Back then any new city outside the UK mainland was a bewildering adventure for me. Anything that was marginally different from home was a marvel. I used to enjoy going into Seven-Elevens and Spar shops, buying any beer I hadn’t seen before, good or bad, noting how the snacks were arranged differently, or appreciating that the ham roll was an international standard that took slightly different forms wherever you went.
Last weekend, as I got off the airport bus at the top of the Ramblas (I’d never have dared get a bus on my own that first time) I felt an echo of the old rush, conjured up by Barcelona’s graceful architecture, the relaxed rush of the place. But I was nostalgic for that lost innocence. I’ve become a little blasé about travelling now. Once you’ve done a three month sea journey to India, a European city break is well in your stride and holds little that’s unexpected. This makes me feel slightly sad and a more than a little old.
I feel even older when, after checking in to my hotel, I take my city guide out for a stroll around the Barri Gotic, Barcelona’s old quarter. Stealthily, my eyesight has worsened since I was last here, and I simply can’t make out the street names on the maps. 
I try wandering randomly instead. That first time I was here with the Beer Widow and my wingman Chris, this strategy brought us to Barcelona’s Kojak tribute bar, and not one, but two pirate themed bars. The best thing was, these nautical oddities were just across the road from each other – the only two pirate themed bars in the city; in fact the only two I’ve ever seen. Getting slowly pissed on Estrella and full of jamon and pimientos de padron, we tried to imagine what the story was. Two friends with a vision of the perfect pirate themed pub, maybe, and after opening it together one ousts the other. In his rage, he opens a rival establishment across the road. “There’s only room for one pirate theme bar in Barcelona, and by God, mine will triumph!” Images of cannon firing across the street, and people swinging on ropes across the narrow gap with daggers in their mouths.
It seems both the pirate bars and the Kojak bar are long gone, which adds to my building sense of nostalgia. But then I walk into a small square and discover La Cerveteca. According to the Craft Beer section in my copy of the Rough Guide to Barcelona (seriously) this bar offers the city’s widest selection of beers from around the world, as well as a few local brews.  

Last time I visited Barcelona – about five years ago on a work trip – there was no craft beer. There is now. Ever since my Three Sheets trips, Spain has always been one of my favourite places to drink. Not because of the quality of the beer (although Spanish mainstream lagers are far superior to their British equivalents) but because of the way people drink. Small glasses, often with tiny bits of food, moving through the city until the small hours, ending up happy and sated but not completely pissed. It’s the perfect way to drink beer.

Now you can do it with good beer.

I’d heard that Spain had discovered craft beer and considered reading up on it, maybe contacting a few people before I flew out. I’m glad I didn’t. I can just be a punter again, on a new journey of discovery.

La Cerveteca is in an old building of exposed massive stone blocks, very high ceilings and mosaic floors. It’s a very Spanish bar, which makes the shelves of Nogne O, BrewDog, Meantime, Dupont and Cantillon bottles lining the walls seem all the more incongruous. People stand around large hogsheads on which they drape their heavy winter coats (they seem to be feeling the chill of 15 degrees Celsius more than I do) and perch their beers.

I’m one of those people who usually speaks English slowly, assuming/hoping serving staff across Europe will understand. But here, ordering a pint of IPA in a foreign language for possibly the first time, I realise those three letters have become as international as ‘OK’ or the scribbly airsign you make when you want the bill. Even in languages where the phonetic pronunciation of the letters is different, they anglicise it for IPA, the way Brits sometimes say Zee instead of Zed if it’s in an American context. Say those three letters in a craft beer bar anywhere in the world, and the bartender will nod, whatever languages they do or don’t speak.

As well as ‘Ipanema IPA’, the bar boasts locally brewed beers including porter, saison, red ale and smoked marzen. Some of these are even cask conditioned. A half-drawn just behind the bar reveals an expansive cellar.  The physics-defying heads on the pints being poured suggest there might still be some work to be done there, so I stick to the keg taps.

My IPA is good: clean, fresh and quenching, with a slowly building hop fuzziness, just how I like it.

I’m absurdly happy that I can stand at the bar in a place like this and order a pint of saison with a plate of Jamon Belotta – the king of ham, at least within my budget – or just about. (The first time I had Belotta ham is detailed in Three Sheets in the bit about the Hamburglar in Madrid, who got me and my mate Chris pissed on Ballantyne whisky and tricked us into buying a €17 plate of ham each).

The ham simply melts around it’s fat, sweet and salty. And although it’s not a perfect match with the saison, it pulls the beer into interesting new shapes, making it bolder and more cheerful than a saison usually is.

Craft beer belongs perfectly in Barcelona’s easygoing gastronomic culture, which is even now creating playful new fusions such as Asian-influenced tapas (unsurprising given the Japanese eat and drink beer in a very similar fashion). This is Ferran Adria’s city after all.

The next day I find the actual address of Hook, the last pirate theme bar, and discover it closed last summer. Instead, a few doors down, there’s a bar called CRAFT, selling BrewDog, Meantime and Brooklyn beers far more cheaply than I can buy them at home.

This prompts mixed feelings. The charm of researching Three Sheets was discovering the quirks of drinking culture around the world, realising that there was a universal template for what beer means, and what the beer moment is, and that this template gets dressed up in different national and regional costumes that are unique, and sometimes special.

In one sense it’s fantastic that I can now get the craft beers I know – plus some new ones such as Holz and Aktien, that I’d like to get to know better – in one of my favourite cities in the world. In another, it makes me slightly sad that this seemingly comes at the cost of sitting in a pub lined with prints of Telly Savalas, drinking perfectly average lager, and laughing like a drain.

But maybe those days were gone anyway.

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Guinness back to what it does best

It really is good for you.

Ah, St Patrick’s Day: guaranteed to drive some angsty beer geeks to ask why everyone insists on drinking Guinness when there are so many superior stouts available, and explain to their friends that it’s not really an Irish beer at all because it was derived from London’s porter tradition, so really the whole of Paddy’s Day is a sham, and anyway it’s an Irish festival and we’re not Irish so why are we celebrating this one instead of celebrating with real ale on St Georges Day?

And no one listens to them. Instead, everyone else sees it simply as an excuse to spend another boozy night in the pub enjoying themselves, buying into a version of the Irish craic that may not have anything true about it, but is perfectly good fun nonetheless, if you’re in the mood for it.

Guinness is facing an interesting time at the moment. It’s the very best illustration out there of our declining need for big brand reassurance in the beer market. In the late nineteenth century, when brewers floated on the stock exchange to raise funds to buy the pubs that sold their beers, Guinness followed a different path, building a singular, iconic brand rather than a tied estate of pubs selling a range of different beers. Throughout the twentieth century, it didn’t matter whether you were drinking in a Whitbread, Courage or Watney’s pub, a freehouse or a managed pub – you had to have Guinness on the bar. Pretenders like Murphy’s came and went, but consistent investment in building a brand that looked like no other kept Guinness strong. There aren’t many brands that enjoy seeing tourists actually spending money to buy copies of their adverts from seventy or eighty years ago.

Three for a tenner on Portobello Road
This brand strength has meant that Guinness can get away with charging pubs more than other beers. I’ve spoken to publicans who feel bitter, almost held to ransom, who believe they must have Guinness on their bar even if it means paying through the nose for it. And market research shows why: in the late nineties, more people claimed to drink Guinness than any other beer brand. Some of them may have only drunk it on one day of the year; others were simply lying – they liked to think of themselves as Guinness drinkers, or be seen by others as Guinness drinkers, even if they didn’t actually like the taste. 
Things are different now. Brewers such as Brains, Fullers, and Wadworth are developing their own 4.0-4.2% nitrokeg stouts and discovering that Guinness is pretty easy to copy. When they put it on the bar, they’re finding that these days, people who actually like the beer are OK not to have the brand – especially if their pint is a bit cheaper.
How did this happen?
Well, partly, it’s that mainstream brands have become boring and commoditised across the board, and drinkers are increasingly confident to try something that hasn’t been on the telly.
And partly it’s that the iconic advertising lost its mojo. 
When you’ve made a commercial that is routinely voted as the best TV ad of all time (an early work by the director of this year’s most talked about film) it’s a hard act to follow.
The last decade and a bit has seen huge budget Guinness ads that have been very easily forgettable, with the possible exception of this one:

which always seemed to reappear a few months after the latest misguided spectacular had quietly disappeared.

But suddenly, the mojo seems to have come back. Possibly the two best commercials I’ve seen in the last year both turned out to be for Guinness.

The first one pulls you in and you hesitate, worried that you’re going to like the film only for the rug to be pulled at the end and it turns out to be something cynical and cheesy. In fact the pay-off is quite moving, and fits perfectly with what Guinness wants to say about both itself and its drinkers.

And then there’s this beauty, which starts off so good you think you’re almost certainly going to be disappointed, and you’re not – thoughtful, spectacular and bang on for a brand that’s at least as popular in parts of Africa as it is in Ireland.

If you find this as compelling and beautiful as I do, you might also enjoy the five minute film they made:

These two are possibly the best beer ads we’ve seen in a decade. Whether they are enough to make Guinness as indispensable and irreplaceable as it once was, we’ll have to wait and see. But I would imagine that the Paddy’s Day toasts at St James’s Gate are a little easier this year than they have been.

Oh, and there’s one more beer bore cliché we have to get out of the way while talking about Guinness. If you think it’s just a tasteless, bland brand produced by a big corporation that is scared of flavour and has no idea about how to get it into their beer, that’s because you’ve fallen for the trap that there is only one Guinness. Last time I visited the brewery, we were given a tutored tasting of seven different Guinnesses that were all on sale at the time. If you do want a powerful stout that’s up there with the very best, seek out Guinness Foreign Extra Stout:

One of the best stouts in the world.

At 7.5%, rich and complex with vinous notes and spiciness twining around the usual big blocks of coffee and chocolate flavour, it’s a genuine classic that allegedly makes up over 40% of total Guinness sales worldwide. For those who take notice of these things, it scores 96% on Ratebeer and 91% on Beer Advocate.

Not bad for a dull, corporate global brand.

Slainte.

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Will ‘craft’ change beer for good?

Guys from Five Points took this at the previous, shorter Masterclass.
There’s something deeply wrong when you have to set the alarm on a Sunday morning and be out of the door by half past eight. 
But you wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t also the sign of something being very right.
At a time when I would normally be contemplating a long bath and a fry-up, last Sunday I was giving the introductory presentation at a ‘Masterclass‘ on ‘How to launch an independent brewery’ being held by the Guardian in their north London offices. The event was a sell-out: a hundred people had paid £99 each and given up their Sunday to hear me followed by a succession of brewers and publicans, including people from Beavertown, Five Points, Burning Sky, Harbour Brewing and Pressure Drop talk about the perils and pitfalls of jacking in the day job to make beer.
I had been concerned that my own presentation erred on the negative side, and through the day the brewers’ presentations seemed to focus on lists of things you had to think about and be careful of, and constant reminders that opening a brewery was not a route to riches. And yet on Twitter (#indiebrewery) and at drinks afterwards (which continued at the excellent and new-to-me Queen’s Head pub in Kings Cross, who’s guv’nor was another of the speakers) people said they had found it inspiring and motivating. Clearly an audience consisting mainly of home brewers who want to spend more time on that and less time in their current jobs were not going to be put off by the idea that this was hard work. They’d all given up their Sundays too. Most had come from outside London. I even spoke to people who are about to open breweries in Spain, Italy and Germany who had come along for tips.
The momentum around beer and brewing, the sense that we are in the middle of the best time in living memory to enjoy a decent beer, was palpable. I kicked off my presentation with this tweet, from someone reading my first book, which is now eleven years in print:
Things have changed beyond recognition, beyond hope, since I wrote that chapter. 
Against this, the questions that were asked most often were: “How long can this go on?” and “Will the bubble burst?” 
Entirely understandable if you are considering jumping off a career ladder and spending your savings on a brewery.
The bubble question is being asked with increasing frequency inside the craft beer movement. One of my slides on Sunday pointed out that in the last ten years, the number of breweries in the UK has more than doubled, while the total volume size of the beer market has collapsed by 23%. Craft beer is focused more towards the on-trade in Britain, and yet each week, on average two new breweries open for business while 28 pubs close for good.
And yet in the UK, real ale and other formats of craft beer together account for only 18% of the total beer market. The mass volume is still in mainstream, mass-produced commercial brands, and probably always will be. But it’s those brands that are suffering the most, those corporations that see craft beer as a threat – or maybe an opportunity.
I don’t know what’s going to happen. No one does. But a follow-up question that helps determine the future prognosis is this: is the taste for craft beer (and if the definition of craft is still bothering you, forget that word and just use ‘interesting, flavourful beer’ instead) a fad, or more than that?
In my presentation, I had a slide saying ‘Craft beer is a movement’, which this picture on it:
This is from when a bunch of brewers went to BrewDog to make a whole host of collaborative beers that then formed ‘Collabfest’, where jointly made, jointly branded products were sold across BrewDog bars. 
When I looked at the slide while I was rehearsing my presentation, it made me wonder what I was going to say over it. I always use the words ‘movement’ and ‘revolution’ to describe what’s happening in beer now. They are big, juicy, dramatic words. Am I right to use them? 
Other people talk about the craft beer ‘fad’. Interestingly, the only people I have heard use this term are working for large brewing companies. (They are inevitably framing craft beer as an east London hipster thing, which is a whole other argument. Brewers such as BrewDog near Aberdeen, Thornbridge in Derbyshire, Dark Star just outside Brighton, Marble in Manchester and Moor Beer in Somerset, and bars like the North Bar in Leeds, the Bridge Bier Huis in Burnley, the Devonshire Cat in Sheffield, the Snowdrop Inn in Lewes and countless others up and down the country, who have been making and selling craft beer since Daltson’s hipsters were drinking shandy, may feel justifiably aggrieved at that.)
So what’s the difference between a fad and a revolution? Both, eventually, run out of steam. The momentum, the velocity of great beer certainly can’t carry on at its current rate indefinitely.
I think the difference is that a fad comes and goes, and when it’s gone, it’s forgotten by everyone apart from Peter Kay, Stuart Maconie and Barry Shitpeas. It hasn’t changed anything, or left any meaningful legacy.
When a revolution happens, it changes things for ever. The repercussions of a movement are felt long after it has disbanded. And whether or not the bubble bursts, whether or not there’s a shakeout, consolidation or contraction in the number of people making beer in Britain, I simply can’t imagine that the beer scene will go back to how it was when I wrote the megabrands chapter in Man Walks into a Pub
I can’t imagine that people like Beavertown’s Logan Plant or Lovibond’s Jeff Rosenmeier will fail as brewers, or get bored of it and walk away. BrewDog, Thornbridge, Meantime, Camden, Magic Rock, Marble, Sierra Nevada, Sam Adams and Stone are not going to go bust, or suddenly start making pissy lager to stay in business. Yes, some will sell out to bigger companies at some point. But they’ve helped a lot of people discover a taste for beer they never knew they had. 
Tastes change. You might wake up suddenly one day and say “I’m bored of bold hoppy flavours.” But you don’t wake up and say, “I’m bored of bold hoppy flavours. I think I’m just going to drink Foster’s from now on.”
However it evolves, and whoever ends up brewing it, craft beer is here to stay.

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Man V #BrewBurger

Burger condiments

The idea, apparently, was “to get as much beer in a burger as we possibly could.”


“Ah, well, I like to chuck a bottle of beer into my burger mix,” I smile.
Tom from Honest Burger looks at me oddly. “No, we don’t actually put it in the burger itself. The beef is the main ingredient. It has to shine. We don’t want to smother it.”
Oh. This is more complicated than I thought.

Fair enough though: the meat for the burger is 35-day dry-aged beef sourced from The Ginger Pig, possibly the most adored meat supplier to the self-conscious London foodie. The only thing added to the meat itself is a light seasoning. My own preferred way of making burgers – buy whatever mince they have in Sainsburys round the corner, squidge it all up with salt, pepper, onion, beer, grain mustard and a bit of coriander or parlsey before chucking it on the barbie – suddenly seems crude and naive. 
This branch of Honest Burger, yet another new burger chain, is in King’s Cross, and has been open about six weeks. “Oh, you’re the beer blogger,” says the person on the door when I give my name. I’m shown downstairs where a few people from BrewDog welcome me and get me a beer, and I slide into a booth constructed from bare wooden planks. 
London has been deluged by new burger ‘concepts’ over the last couple of years, and my ‘hipster twat’ alarm is on a hair trigger, ready to go off. 
The theory is sound: southern US cuisine is a perfect foil for craft beer, two complementary flavour suites just waiting to be fit together.
But Britain has a habit of appropriating brilliant concepts and executing them in a humdrum way. Last autumn I went to a ‘street food festival’ in Dalston. We paid eight quid to get in (which included a free pint of Meantime beer, but not the Meantime beer I wanted, according to the incredibly bad-tempered servers) then queued for 25 minutes to spend another £9 on a deeply average burger which we ate from wobbly paper plates on creaky benches in a disused factory warmed by open braziers. I fancied that two years previously, tramps had sat in this same spot eating very similar food in identical circumstances. All evening, this was my earworm:

A couple of months earlier, I’d joined Evan Rail, an American beer writer now living in Prague, who had been dispatched to London by the New York Times to review another trendy London burger joint. He’s much kinder in the article he wrote than he was on the night, when he said, “Well… it’s a burger isn’t it?”
So tonight, I’m wary, ready for another ‘concept’ that promises everything and delivers only salt, fat and deflated guilt. I’m here for the #BrewBurger, a collaboration with BrewDog that allegedly contains so much beer you need to be ID’d as over 18 before you’re allowed to eat it. I’m sceptical about this, as most of the alcohol surely burns off. I’m doubly sceptical when introduced to Tom and his business partner. They barely look old enough to get served in a pub themselves, let alone run one of London’s most talked about new burger chains. Exactly half an hour after the appointed start time, the room fills instantly with fresh-faced hipsters and the burgers start coming out.
So if there’s no beer in the burger itself, where does all the booze go? Well, the beef dripping in which the onions are cooked has been slathered with Punk IPA. The bacon has been marinated in 5AM Saint and brown sugar. And the barbecue sauce has been infused with the mighty Arran whisky barrel aged Paradox.  
With a billing like that, I decide to take a little more care with my burger than I normally would. 
Firstly, the appearance: the style of presentation could be summed up as ‘Fuck you, Masterchef.’ This is dirty and, yes, honest food. 
Detox buster.

It smells wonderful, complete in a way I’ve never thought about in relation to a burger before. It’s all about balance, with sweet and sour, umame and caramel, strong yet surprisingly graceful.

The bacon on its own is so phenomenal you could be forgiven for forgetting the burger and asking for a bacon buttie instead. If it were possible for a flavour to transport you to a high ridge at a flaming Montana sunset to watch cowboys herd steers across the prairie, only you’re sitting on the balcony of a Parisian Michelin starred restaurant at the top of that ridge, then this bacon would do it.

Onto the main event, and the burger is simply the best one I can remember tasting. You can taste the beef, and I realise how rarely beef tastes of beef, and that good beef tastes of a happy life.

When I get to the middle of the burger, all these elements finally come together – the onions and the bacon and the barbecue sauce – and suddenly the hype doesn’t sound like hype any more. There’s definitely booze here, spiritous and risky. Am I just imagining I can taste the barrel ageing of the Paradox through all those layers of barbecue sauce in the middle of everything else that’s going on? I’m not sure.

If that’s not enough alcoholic complexity, the burger has been paired with a fourth BrewDog beer, the newly released Bourbon Baby. It’s been aged in Bourbon barrels – something that conventional craft brewing wisdom says only works for strong, dark porters and stouts, not a 5.8%ABV Scotch ale like this.

I tried this beer fresh off the bottling line just yesterday, 500 miles north of here in BrewDog’s new brewery. Those bottles were then couriered down here and crash-chilled. This beer cannot possibly be on its best form.

And initially, the beer is less than the sum of its parts. It’s doing what a beer does, being all cold and refreshing and helping out with a bit of palate cleansing action. Despite the temperature there’s a big hit of chocolate and bourbon, but it becomes less interesting in the face of the onslaught of flavour the #BrewBurger is packing. And then, the retronasal action kicks in. Despite the trauma it’s endured over the last day or so, the beer comes out punching, sneaks around the back of the palate and pulls in that boozy spiritousness, completing a whole chain of flavour elements and making them sing harmonies. Bourbon Baby is a very good beer, even this cold, even this agitated, even up against this burger. And there you are: dirty food and dirty beer together playing magic on your palate like an idiot savant virtuoso pianist made out of chopped beef and malted barley. Yet another BrewDog idea that sounds like it might be trying a bit too hard on paper, but makes perfect, stunning sense when delivered.

Last time I ate at McDonalds – which was more recently than I care to admit – I remember using the last of the fries to scrape up the dregs of salt and sauce. Even as the compacted aggregate of the food slumped heavily in my stomach, my palate was unsatisfied, overstimulated and seeking closure. With #BrewBurger the fries, nice as they are, are superfluous. The burger and beer together a complete meal without anything else, battering your palate into delighted submission.

I always feel guilty about eating burgers. They are not good for you. This meal is not a healthy meal, and doesn’t pretend to be. I resolve that from now on a burger has to be this good for it to be worth the damage.

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Brewers Dominate BBC Radio 4 Food and Farming Awards

I wrote a few years ago that Thornbridge and BrewDog were like the Beatles and the Stones: rivals, both revolutionary, one more user friendly and respectable, the other edgier and more dangerous, but each profoundly changing the medium they work in.

Now, I’ve had to update my analogy by a few decades. Because over the next few weeks I am officiating in a rivalry that more resembles this:
In January, I appealed for drinks producers of all kinds to put themselves forward for the BBC Radio 4 Food and Farming Awards. I am judging the category of Best Drinks Producer for the second time, along with Victoria Moore, the wine writer for the Daily Telegraph.
Clearly our appeal struck a chord. The total number of entries doubled to almost 200. Of that total, 113 were either brewers or cider makers. I especially enjoyed reading some of the nominations for micro-distillers and people making interesting, natural, adult-oriented soft drinks. But as Victoria and I hacked our way down to a long shortlist, almost half the names on it were brewers. Every single brewery that I am excited about in Britain today either put themselves forward or was nominated by a fan.
We had to take our longlist of eight or nine contenders to a meeting with the judges from all the other categories. Each shortlist, including categories like Best Farmer, Best Food Market and Best Takeaway Food, has to be approved by the entire judging panel.
Best Drinks Producer was kept until last, because we had samples from many of our shortlisted entrants to taste. After tasting our top three, people asked to taste some of the other beers too, just to make sure we’d chosen well. Things got quite raucous. A couple of our decisions were overturned, and finally it went to a vote, the result being that among three finalists, we have two breweries and a winemaker:
UK’S BEST DRINKS PRODUCER, FINALISTS
Someone across the table captured my reaction to this:

Shortlist agreed.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m delighted that two of our three finalists are brewers. It reflects the momentum and creativity in brewing today. And I love both brewers, having known each pretty much since they started. But that’s the problem. I might have to choose between them.

Of course the wine maker might impress us more – I’ve been keen to find out more about the revolution that’s happening in British sparkling wine. It’s a three-way fight.

But within that three-way, there’s an epic struggle brewing for the craft beer crown. BrewDog’s Martin Dickie began his brewing career at Thornbridge. Along with Stefano Cossi he created Jaipur, the beer that has won more prizes in British brewing competitions than any other in the last ten years. He began his experiments with wood ageing beer with Thornbridge’s St Petersburg. And two years later he quit to go home and found BrewDog with his childhood friend James Watt.

Now both breweries are guiding lights of the UK craft beer movement. Both have achieved huge levels of success, and added chains of pubs or bars to their businesses that set superlative standards for serving beer as well as brewing it. Each brand is so strong it attracts keen, bright beer lovers who want to work with them and be part of the story. Both have taken the US craft beer influence and turned it on its head, exporting their beers back out round the world. Countless people have been inspired by them to set up breweries of their own.

So which is best?

There’s only one way to find out… or maybe not.

We visited BrewDog last Monday, going around the new brewery, tasting the latest beer, Bourbon Baby, straight from the bottling line, going through the core range and finishing with another beer, as yet unnamed, drawn from a red wine barrel where it has another three months to go before bottling. At one point Victoria, who doesn’t really drink beer, whispered “I think I’ve been converted to beer.”

This coming Monday we visit Thornbridge. Every time I go there, there are new surprises, and they’ve promised us plenty more this time.

And then, in a couple of weeks, we head to Kent to visit Gusborne, who have been making sparkling wine since 2006 and are regularly cited as one of the most exciting wine makers in the country.

We have a crew with us capturing the whole thing, ready for it to be turned into at least one, and possibly two, editions of the BBC Radio 4 Food Programme. I’ll post details of when you can catch up on our exploits. The winner will be announced at a ceremony in Bristol on May 1st.

In the meantime, who do you think you should win? Who should be celebrated as not just the best brewer (or winemaker), but the best producer of any drink in Britain? 

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Craft Beer Rising

The thing I heard said by people most often at yesterday’s trade session for the above event: “This is so much better than last year.”

They said it was better organised. The stands were better. The space was used more effectively. And most interestingly: “Last year it was just the same old regional brewers bringing their ordinary beers and saying, ‘Hey, we’re craft brewers!’ This year they’ve had a look, gone away and made some new and interesting beers.”

The ‘craft’ ranges from the regionals were joined by true craft stalwarts such as Brew Dog, Thornbridge and Beavertown, as well as lots of US imports and plenty of brewers I’ve never seen before.

The food was amazing too – the stand that claimed to offer the ‘the best ham sandwich you ever tasted’ did a pretty good job of backing it up.

I didn’t taste any beers that changed my life, or even my preferences. But I didn’t taste a beer I didn’t enjoy either.

Hipsters and young brewers mixed with industry greybeards and CAMRA stalwarts. All those ‘craft versus keg’ debates and other reductive musings suddenly seemed very old-fashioned and irrelevant. I only had one conversation all afternoon with people who were worried about a definition of craft beer. Everyone else seemed happy enough just drinking it.

I would post a link if you want tickets, but they’ve all sold out. If you’ve got one, lucky you. You’re in for a treat.

Nearly two months into 2014, it was a great start to my beery year. I intend to continue in a similar relaxed, celebratory vein.

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Six ways to spot if anti-drink stories are trying to mislead you

Our old friends, the media’s favourite ‘binge drinking’ shots. One of these is staged by an actor. The other two show what might well be moderate alcohol consumption.

I do get bored of writing pieces that take down the regular tide of increasingly dishonest scare stories from anti-alcohol lobbies. But I also get increasingly angry that no mainstream news outlet seems prepared to do the same.

The other day we had yet another scare – the third in a week – when the coalition of anti-alcohol groups known as the Alcohol Health Alliance wrote an open letter to George Osborne warning him not to abolish the Duty Escalator, as this would lead to an increase in the £21 billion cost of alcohol to society, which far outstrips the £10billion raised by duty on booze.
While no newspaper challenged this as far as I can see, Christopher Snowdon did an excellent takedown on it, all the more effective for being so dispassionate. Chris, along with Phil Mellows and Paul Chase, are often quicker off the mark than I am these days, and have a surer grasp of the sometimes complicated stats that make it so easy for temperance groups to lie to us. Add all three to your blog roll. 
So I think Chris has this latest one covered – though it does anger me that I took apart the £21 billion claim four years ago and it’s still being quoted as fact.
It struck me that rather than simply repeat what Chris said in an angrier fashion, it might be more useful for me at this point to share some of the tips I’ve learned over the years for reading through these claims in the first place. Most of them don’t require you to do any extra reading, but do arm you with the healthy scepticism you need to read almost anything written about alcohol in the national press these days. (Many of them are also quite useful for any article on benefit scroungers, immigrants, urban foxes, or any other issue the Daily Mail is seeking to create a moral panic over.)
So here we go: seven questions to ask yourself when trying to work out if an article on drink is trying to mislead you:

1. Does the piece focus on specific examples rather than overall trends?
The common, time-honoured tactic of papers like The Sun and the Daily Mail is to take isolated cases and make them appear to be the norm. It’s extraordinarily effective: this North London muslim cleric is preaching hate speech against the west; this family of asylum seekers cheated the system; this family on benefits gets £30k a year and says they will never get a job… run two or three stories like this, and we start to believe they’re all at it. Almost always, in each case, any data available shows that these are random, isolated examples and are not reflective of the bigger picture, yet we start to believe they are. 
Using personal examples to bring a statistical story to life is good journalism. Using isolated examples to imply a trend when there is no data to suggest such a trend exists is not.
When the Daily Mail goes out to find pictures of drunken excess on New Year’s Eve, it will find them, because it knows where to look for them, and goes there, then pretends they are showing something typical of everywhere. They don’t reveal how hard they had to look, or how selective their choice of pictures had to be. 
(These stories are close relations to the Express’ ‘Global warming must be rubbish because it’s snowing outside my house,’ and the Guardian-style ‘Setting up your own online ethnic jewellery business must be THE trend of 2014 because two of my friends from uni are doing it’.) 
2. Has new research been published or is there any other genuine hook for the story?
New figures, such as the regular new studies that show moderate drinkers live longer, or that alcohol sales have declined again, are newsworthy because they are new. If there are none in the story, then its newsworthiness must be questioned. There was nothing new in yesterday’s letter to George Osborne. In fact the data it relied on is a decade old. I often have positive stories about beer and pubs rejected because they have no news hook. The same criterion seems not to apply to stories scaring people about alcohol.
3. If there are numbers, what is their source and how recent are they?
If the facts don’t fit, anti-alcohol groups have a habit of simply making them up. Last January, for example, Alcohol Concern launched its Dry January blitz with some sensational stats claiming 40% of daytime and 60% of nighttime hospital admissions were caused by alcohol. They provided no source for these figures, and ignored requests to do so. Of course their claims were still reported as fact, even though NHS figures show nothing of the kind. Look for stats compiled by the NHS and by the Office of National Statistics (ONS), which present the most accurate guess at what’s happening to our behaviour and, with the exception of liver disease, show long term, consistent decline in just about every measure of alcohol consumption and alcohol related harm.
Also, check how recent the data is, and where it’s from. The estimated £21 billion cost of alcohol to society is, on top of all its other flaws, based on a cabinet office report that is now 10 years old and therefore reflects higher levels of consumption, and drinking patterns as they were before the 2005 licensing act came into force. The much referred to ‘Sheffield Study’, on which the whole case for Minimum Unit Pricing is based, relies heavily on research carried out between 2002 and 2009 in two Canadian provinces – Ontario and British Columbia – where the availability and sale of alcohol is state controlled and operates entirely differently from the UK, and therefore is limited in its suitability as a comparison to the situation here.
As the problem with alcohol continues to recede, there’s an emerging trend to quote old data even when newer data shows the problem is in decline. In this example, Alcohol Concern knowingly and deliberately used out-of-date figures about under-age drinking that had been superseded by more recent figures that showed a marked decline in the problem. This led to newspaper headlines about ‘soaring’ alcohol abuse when the very data this claim was based upon showed it was actually declining.
This last example also illustrates a more popular method of misrepresenting data. Beware claims such as ‘Worry as over 45s now drink more than students’. This could be due to over 45s drinking more, or it could be due to students drinking less. If it is because over 45s are drinking more, you can guarantee the story will talk about a ‘shocking rise’ in figures that are ‘soaring’. If such an increase is not specified and the number is presented as a snapshot with no context over time, you can pretty much guarantee that the figure, whatever it is, and however shocking it might seem, is actually in decline over time, and that’s why they have not told you what the trend is.

4. Who wrote the piece and what is their interest?
As a Guardian reader, I get upset when a paper I generally trust (go on, take the piss here if you really need to) suddenly turns into the Daily Mail. On closer inspection, many of these articles are written by a ‘health editor’, who probably therefore has a different agenda and a different set of close contacts than a news reporter would (just as, to be fair, a business editor would have closer links with industry.) In articles such as this one, Guardian health writers consistently attack ‘the powerful alcohol industry’ for lobbying against Minimum Unit Pricing, when the facts are that large portions of the beer world – including CAMRA, many pub operators, Greene King, Tennents, the All Party Parliamentary Beer Group and the supposedly irresponsible (hint: they’re not irresponsible) Brew Dog were all publicly and loudly in favour of Minimum Pricing. At one stage the chief executives of twelve pub groups, brewers and night club chains wrote an open letter to David Cameron demanding he introduce minimum pricing. Yet the article above illustrates claims about the power of ‘the alcohol lobby’ killing MUP with a picture of beer. Whether you agree with these pro-MUP brewers and retailers or not, articles that repeatedly accuse the government of dancing to the tune of the drinks industry when the government is in fact acting against the wishes of a significant chunk of that industry are grossly inaccurate. That inaccuracy is borne out of the bias (or sometimes plain laziness) of the author.

5. Are the ‘experts’ being quoted really experts in what they’re talking about?  
When I’m ill I go to my doctor and I trust completely what she tells me about my health. If she were to tell me that alcohol had damaged my liver, I would believe her, especially if she referred me to a liver specialist who told me the same. 
But if my doctor were to say, “You know what? If you put a beer logo on a football shirt, that will make ten year old fans of that football club want to drink that beer,” I would say, “Well that’s your opinion, but you’re hardly an expert in that area, so there is no way you can assert that as fact with no research to back up your opinion.” 
That’s not how it works in public though. The 2009 Alcohol Select Committee report chose to believe a representative of the British Medical Association’s claims about the effect of alcohol advertising on children despite an independent report from people who were qualified in this area (unlike, say, a medical doctor) casting severe doubts on both the methodology and conclusions of the doctor’s claims. There are doctors and doctors. Some doctors, for whatever reason, have a personal passion against alcohol, and because they are doctors, their personal opinions are quoted as fact. When a doctor says that alcohol advertising deliberately targets kids, that doctor has nothing in his training that qualifies him better than anyone else to make this assertion. And I know that that doctor has never had an ad banned or a script rejected, like I had on many occasions in my advertising days, on the mere possibility that it just might appeal to children, even when there is no evidence that it does, when it contravenes neither the spirit nor letter of the strict advertising guidelines on this issue, and when there has been no complaint received that it does appeal to kids.

6. Are the claims being made by the protagonist countered or challenged in any way?
Use of language is an immediate giveaway as to whether the piece is impartial or not. Here’s a classic: Minimum pricing would save 860 lives a year, study finds. Not ‘study claims’, but ‘study finds’. The headline tells you all you need to know: here is a press release from an anti-alcohol organisation that has been accepted as incontrovertible fact by the (health) journalist writing the story. 
Moving beyond the choice of words used, the people quoted in the piece prove clear bias and a total lack of impartiality. We hear from the Alcohol Health Alliance, the lead author of the study, and of course professor Ian Gilmore. These three anti-alcohol voices are not balanced by one comment or contribution from the other side of the debate, and there is none offered by the journalist herself.
Once again, I’m not saying there is no alcohol problem. If you see an article where new data from an impartial source shows soaring alcohol problems, reported as news, then fair enough. But such articles are increasingly rare. As the true scale of our drinking problem continues to recede, all the tactics above are being used on an increasingly frequent basis to hide this truth from us. Next time you see a scare story on booze, give this checklist a try.

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If you aren’t spending this weekend in a muddy field shouting at a tree, why not?

It’s wassail weekend. We covered Wassails in World’s Best Cider. I also wrote about different wassails for the now-defunct magazine Fire and Knives. Below is one edited piece that’s an amalgam of three of my favourite wassails. Photos by Bill Bradshaw. If you’ve never been to a wassail, now’s the time to start.

A man wearing a
facial disguise, a coat that looks like it’s made out of 1970s wallpaper and a
top hat with flowers and ostrich feathers on it advances towards me with a lit
blowtorch, his eyes gleaming in the firelight. 
There would be no point
trying to run – we’re up to our ankles in sticky mud. We’d be blind outside
this circle of firelight. And we’re in the middle of a field, miles from the
nearest village.
The man with the
blowtorch raises it above my head and lights a torch I’m carrying. Soon there
is a procession of us carrying yellow flames that give surprising illumination
against the night.
Strings of light
bulbs adorn the naked apple trees, turning them silvery and petrified,
faerie-like. 
We gather around a
large, hot bonfire, a poker protruding from its
embers, and the drizzle loses its spirit-sapping powers completely if you get
close enough to the flames.  Someone
plays a jolly tune on an accordion – and then everyone falls silent.  The Wassail Master of Ceremonies takes the
poker from the fire and plunges it into a wooden pail brimming with cider. The
liquid steams and foams, spewing onto the grass.  The MC carries the pail solemnly towards the
oldest apple tree in the orchard, steam flowing down its sides like a witch’s
cauldron.
Now, the Morris
men carry the queen on their shoulders and deposit her at the base of the
tree.  She takes a pitchfork with a slice
of toast speared on its prongs and dips it into the pail, then raises it into
the tree and teases the toast free from the prongs, leaving it in the branches
of the tree to attract robins, who will in turn attract good spirits to the
tree. The crowd raises a hearty cheer, and scores of flashlights fire, freezing
raindrops in the air like diamonds. 
The Queen’s reward
is a hearty drink from the cider pail, something she accomplishes so
enthusiastically it earns her another cheer. 
She pours the remains around the base of the old apple tree, giving back
the fruits of last year’s harvest to its roots. 
And now the entire crowd is gong batshit-crazy, banging sticks, cheering
and ululating, scaring away the evil spirits from the tree. Five men in flat
caps and neckerchiefs stride forward, raise shotguns and fire two volleys into
the branches, the retorts so loud I feel it in my chest rather than hear
it.  Orange sparks fly, smoke fills the
branches, and the air is thick with the smell of cordite.
And that’s when it
happens.  Reality shifts.
Mythology often
talks about ‘liminal’ places. 
Liminality, from the Latin limen,
or ‘threshold’, basically refers to a transitional state during a rite of
passage. Anywhere from an airport terminal to TV’s Twilight Zone could be described as a liminal place.  Throughout our history we’ve spun tales of
the existence of other worlds parallel to ours own, various heavens and hells
and, especially, the world of faerie. Normally these worlds are entirely separate
from ours and it’s impossible to pass between them at will. But there are
certain places – liminal places –
where the walls between the worlds are thin. 
A little magic seeps through and the edges, the margins of our world,
become infected by it.  Normal rules
bend, and at times don’t apply at all. 
In our search for
liminality, for mental freedom, we’re rediscovering that childlike ability to
simultaneously believe and disbelieve in magic. 
And as the cordite fills the air and the thick smoke hazes the faerie-lit
trees, for a few minutes I genuinely believe – I know – that we have succeeded in driving evil spirits from this
realm, back through the liminal space to the dimension where they belong.
Everyone else
knows it too. Tomorrow we’ll completely accept that the apple harvest is down
to weather patterns and soil, judicious stewarding and farming technology.  But not tonight.
Or maybe it’s all
just a good excuse to get pissed.
As the younger
children start to file out home, happy and tired, the Fallen Apples take the
stage and do a brief soundcheck, West Country style:
Harmonica player
(blasts a note): Z’at sound oroight?
Audience: cheers
Guitar (strums a
chord): Z’at sound oroight?
Audience: cheers
Bass (plays a few
notes): Z’at sound oroight?
Audience: cheers,
and then before the cheers have chance to die down, the band launches into
something so stupidly bluegrass-catchy that there’s a moshpit where families
were standing only seconds before.  Cider
flies through the air in golden arcs. 
The farmyard mud is stamped into submission.
It’s late by the
time they finish their set, but over in the big barn, the Skimmity Hitchers are
just getting going. These are the kings of the genre known as ‘Scrumpy &
Western,’ possibly because they invented it. 
In the hands of these funnier, modern day Wurzels (a band they’ve
supported), My Girl Lollipop becomes My Girl Cider Cup, and Ring of Fire becomes, well:
I drank down a lovely point of cider
It went down, down, down and my smile it
grew wider
And I yearns, yearns, yearns,
For a pint o’ cider
For a pint o’ cider
By the time Monkey Man is somehow impossibly
improved by its mutation into Badger Man,
and a fully-grown man in a badger costume takes centre-stage, the audience has
abandoned its earlier moderation. 
Everyone, myself included, has their own
two-litre carton of Jungle Juice hooked over one thumb.  Plastic glasses long since hurled through the
air, we drink straight from the spout.
As the set nears
its end, the audience reaction, while enthusiastic, sounds strangely incomplete.
Then I work out what it is: people are too drunk to clap.
One of the nice
things about this wassail is that it requires no crowd control. By midnight,
the crowd is simply too wankered to carry on, and everyone makes their way home
happily, haphazardly, with wide, warm grins on their faces.
But that’s not the
best thing about wassailing. The best thing is simply that it’s here, it
happens. Wassail simply sticks up two fingers to the most depressing time of
the year. It says, yes, I know party season is over, but we’re going to have a
party anyway, a really big party, and we’re going to hold it in a farmyard, in
the middle of winter, and it’s going to be really good.
And while I’ll
admit it might be the drink talking, I can think of no more laudable triumph of
the human spirit.