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Power Cruising through the Midlands

Before 1840, beer used to be taken from Burton to the ports by canal boat. It was slow and expensive, often costing more than the trip form England to India. Not much has changed.

Canal holidays in the English Midlands cost more than a decent-sized chalet in the Mediterranean, with flights included. I have no idea why. The very nice people at Viking Afloat gave me a 25% discount off the market rate, and it was still more expensive than the cost of a month at sea on a tall ship.

Cost and logistics meant we couldn’t do the whole trip from Burton to London or Liverpool by canal. So we rented a boat form Rugby, 55 miles from Burton along a stretch of canal that was once packed with barges full of India Pale Ale.

You can only go so fats in a canal boat, with an average speed of two and a half to three miles an hour. Our journey each way was estimated to be three full days cruising. The only problem was, we didn’t have three days to get there. By the time we were allowed to pick up the boat, and then stock it with groceries, we only had about three hours’ cruising time left on our first day (you can’t cruise after dark). We had to start at first light, keep constantly on the move, with one person on the tiller while others made breakfast, showered, produced cups of tea, and we didn’t stop until dark. We were meant to be using this stage as a way of getting used to the concept of slow travel, getting away from the idea of speed being everything. Instead, we ended up inventing extreme canal boating by mistake.

And then my cruising companions all had to get back to real life, and I was faced with the prospect of piloting a 68 foot long boat on my own, which we had decided would be impossible. In desperation, I phoned my mum to see if she and her new boyfriend (her first in the 11 years since my dad died) fancied a day and a night on board. I was a bit nervous about meeting my mum’s new beau, and wanted to create a good impression. About half an hour after rendezvousing with them, I took a call telling me that Tehran were refusing to give me an Iranian visa, which I need because my container ship stops off at an Iranian port before it reaches India. Maybe it’s because I was flustered by this, but I took a bend badly and managed to crash the boat. We’d all done this several times, but this was a bad one. I’d got us wedged across a bend in the canal, stuck against both banks. I went forward to try and sort us out. And that’s when, carrying my blackberry and mobile phone, I fell in the canal.

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Oceana: a rest home at sea, but in a good way

Our first leg at sea was on the P&O cruise ship, Oceana. I was angry at Barry (see below) so he remained in our cabin the whole time, glowering. But he was in good company – it was a pleasant surprise to discover that the ship’s many bars all stocked Marston’s Pedigree and Bass Ale, which should have made him feel at home.

I can heartily recommend a cruise ship holiday to anyone who can afford it. Even if you don’t think it’s your kind of thing, it’s like all your senses are in a warm bath. This is what it must be like to be in long term respite care, only without being ill. Every need was catered for. You sign for everything on a little card that goes on your bill at the end, so you don’t even have to carry money.

Although this did cause a problem when we went ashore in Madeira, had a few bars in the Madeira Brew House (not worth the bother), realised we’d both become so institutionalised we had left all our money on board ship, just bringing our little cards out with us. With thirty minutes to go before ship left port, cue a sprint along the cobbled quayside back to the ship for my wallet, and a sprained ankle to add to my rapidly mounting injury count. And these were supposed to be the easy bits.

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Barry the Bastard from Burton

It’s one thing to give a name to an inanimate object and anthropomorphise it. It’s quite another when that object starts to take on a personality that is not necessarily the one you would have chosen for it.

I’m worried that Barry is actually a bit of a bastard. And a grumpy one at that.

Of course he’s heavy – about 30kg. When I first picked him up, I breathed a sigh of relief (which came out as a grunt of exertion) that I’d made a compromise and gone for an aluminium cask instead of the planned wooden one, which would have been twice the weight and would never have gotten very far.

But this is about more than weight.

After getting off the train in London there were no trolleys, and I had a large, heavy bag and laptop case as well as Barry. I managed to get down the length of the platform by hoisting him on to my shoulder, where I could carry him for about thirty yards at a time. By the time I got home, I had a bruise on my bicep as big as a saucer.

He didn’t stop there. We bought a wheelie bag with a handle for him to go in. He broke the spine of that after about a hundred yards, the wheels sticking out uselessly at the sides. So then we bought him a trolley. We checked on the label that it was capable of taking 40kg. So far he’s managed to scrape the paint off it and buckle some of the supports at the bottom. We’ve wrapped him in that special cellophane packing you can get at airports. His bag is red, and glows through the mucus-green cellophane, making him look livid. He’s already burst through this cellophane at the shoulders of the bag, which is scarred with long black marks and tears.

Barry is now a malevolent presence in the room, causing people to stub their feet or bruise their shins on him far more than would be normal for an inanimate, highly visible object.

Our journey’s end in Calcutta is still far away, but I’m already starting to have fantasies about spilling the bastard’s guts once we get there.

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Reassuringly Expensive

So I was in Burton Public Library, researching the IPA book, and I found something else interesting – in 1852 and 1875, Britain sent expeditions to the North Pole. And being British, they took beer with them. There was a public tencder to see who could brew the best beer, which was won by Allsopp’s of Burton on Trent.
The expedition’s leader, Captain Belcher reported that “Allsopp’s Arctic Ale proved to be “a valuable antiscorbutic”, helping fight off scurvy, the bane of all sea voyages in those days. He added that the beer was “a great blessing to us, particularly for our sick” and that it refused to freeze until the temperature dropped well below zero.

According to historian Colin Owen, the beer withstood temperatures of 90 degrees below freezing without a detioration in quality, “a reminder of the superb keeping qualities of Burton ale.” But I don’t think they expected it to keep for quite this long…

Last month, some guy with an antiques and Militaria shop in the US put a bottleof Allsopp’s Arctic Ale on EBay. A bottle made it to the United States in the early twentieth century, and is now believed to be the oldest surviving bottle of beer in the world. It comes with a laminated description that tells its own story about the US in 1919…
“This ale was specially brewed and bottled in England, in 1852, for Kane’s Expedition in search of Sir John Franklin. A portion of the lot was cached in the Arctic; and was afterwards taken back to England, where it was bought by Allsopp, from whom Mr. Jus. Fennell obtained a part.

This bottle was given to me by Mr. Fennell May 13, 1919. Should I depart from this (by that time probably) dry world before consuming the contents, let my son and brethren perform my duties and enjoy my rights in that respect, on the eve of my funeral (if they find it in time) – unless such act be then illegal, in which case those of the aforesaid trustees who sufficiently learned in law shall advise ac-????? To the rule of ey fares.

Two bottles of this ale were guests of honor at the banquet given to Shackleton and Peary, in Boston, some years ago. (1907/1908) The skeletons of said guests were preserved as mementos of Sir John Franklin! (Useful suggestion regarding the “cast off shell” of the spirit.)

Signed: Percy G Bolster

So what was the closing bid on this item?

A cool $503,300.00…

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Father of Beer Writing Dead

I just learned that Michael Jackson, the Beer Hunter, died this morning. He’s been ill for a long time, and the reports don’t yet say what the cause of death was, but the beer community has been increasingly concerned about his health for some years.

Michael was simply the most famous beer writer, beer advocate, beer fan, beer drinker, in the world. When I was researching my last book, I visited countless breweries around the world, and Michel had been there first. I knew this because people there couldn’t wait to tell me – many of them had framed pictures by the mash tuns, evidence of his visit, a mark of approval, a stamp of credibility to rival any brewing award.

Every single person who ever puts pen to paper about beer (or finger to keyboard I suppose) is influenced by him, whether they know it or not. Because before Michael started writing about beer in the 1970s, nobody did – not in the way we recognise. He was the first champion of Belgian beers, then languishing in obscurity. He was the insipiration for god knows how many microbrewers setting up, a sort of patron saint of the American craft brew industry. He invented the way we write beer tasting notes, often imitated, never equalled.

Because the thing about Michael’s writing was he understood that beer writing should be like beer itself – accessible, democratic, relaxed. His articles welcomed you in and sat you down. He made beer and brewers human, and realised you needed a bit of context around the piece, setting the scene, bringing it to life, if you wanted people to truly engage. He knew that it was only partly about what goes on in the glass – and at the same time made that compelling.

Earlier this year I was at a dinner where he was interviewing two young British microbrewers. The questions he asked them got them to open up and talk about their beer in a way they had probably never done before. He drew them out and made them eloquent. They were in awe of him – to them he was a pop star or movie idol, and they actually insisted on getting his autograph as the interview ended – but he treated them with respect and made them shine.

Coming only weeks after the death of John White, I think the whole community of British writers is just shellshocked now – I certainly am. It’s no exaggeration to say that the whole world of beer has suffered a massive loss.

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We Brewed the Beer!

(l-r: Me, Kevin the American, Steve Wellington, Jo)
The India Pale Ale for my epic trip is now brewed and sitting in Burton-on-Trent.
Two weeks ago (fittingly, the week India celebrated 60 years of independence) I went up to Burton to meet Steve Wellington, head brewer at the White Shield brewery, and he put me to work.
We’ve recreated (that’s “we” – I’m a brewer now) an authentic nineteenth century IPA, as near as we can figure it. For those of you interested in brewing, here’s the recipe bit – if you think this kind of thing is a bit spoddy, look away now.
The ‘chassis’ of the beer, if you like – the basic recipe – is based on an old beer called Bass Continental, that was brewed for export and last saw the light of day in about 1920. This beer was 6.5% ABV, so we’ve upped that to 7%. It’s brewed with crystal and pale malts, and English hops, using Northdown hopes for aroma. It’s a rich golden colour – “a blonde with a tan”, as Steve puts it. We used Worthington yeasts and water from the well that used to belong to Thomas Salts, so it’s kind of a meta-Burton IPA, with three legendary brewers represented. It’ll be dry hopped as it goes into the barrel, and will come out at around 50 units of bitterness. That’s quite bitter, unless you’re an insane American hophead who likes drinking fermented hop extract and thinks that tooth enamel is overrated anyway.
There was a bit of a party atmosphere in the brewery with plenty of friends turning up, and the long pauses when wort was bubbling away and there was nothing to do inevitably became filled by beer tasting, and by the afternoon everything was starting to get a bit warm and fuzzy.

Me cleaning out the mash tun. I told you they made me work.

By now it’ll be in the barrel – or ‘Barry’ as I’ve taken to calling him. I’m going to collect him in about a week, and then we’ll be off!

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Bye bye freedom – it was nice knowing you

When I’m not happily drinking beer, I’m increasingly concerned about the systematic undermining of our civil liberties in the name of the prevention of terrorism. As every half-decent stand-up comedian in the country is quipping at the moment: “We cannot let terrorists take away our freedoms – we’ve gotta do it first.”

I’m not the first writer to see a link between beer and pubs and fighting for freedom – many revolutionary and workers’ rights movements met in pubs when they were not allowed to meet anywhere else, and George Orwell saw the pub as the last bastion of freedom away from the prying eyes of government. But that’s another story, and I’m just trying to justify writing about this on my blog. Maybe I’m going to need a separate political blog like BLTP.

Anyway, many people in the UK still don’t realise that the police have been given powers of random stop and search and detention without charge. Your brain doesn’t want to accept it, because powers like that would mean we are living in a police state. Well guess what? We are.

The s44 Terrorism Act 2000 act gives the police powers to:

  • Stop and search people and vehicles for anything that could be used in connection with terrorism
  • Search people even if they do not have evidence to suspect them
  • Hold people for up to a month without charge
  • Search homes and remove protesters’ outer clothes, such as hats, shoes and coats.

Let’s be clear: they have the power to do this to you whoever you are, just because they decide they want to. You don’t have to be acting in a suspicious, terrorist-like way, or commit the crime of travelling on public transport with a rucksack and brown skin. “Anything that could be used in connection with terrorism” – you mean like a car, or a rucksack, or more than 100mls of liquid in a container, or chapatti flour… it could be applied to anything.

Everyone wants terrorism defeated, but when civil liberties groups protest against measures like this, it’s because once granted, these powers may be misused – that is, used for purposes other than defeating terrorism. Because clearly that would be wrong. That would be using a climate of fear in order to erode civil liberties and increase government and police power across the board, with the overall aim of keeping the population cowed.

Whenever anyone protests about this they are dismissed as a paranoid conspiracy theorist who hasn’t got their priorities right. “But we’d never misuse these powers!” the authorities protest. “Look at us, we’re nice guys. Cross our hearts and hope to die, we will only ever use these powers to fight terrorism. It. Would. Never. Happen.”

Cut to today’s Guardian: the government are encouraging the police to use stop and search and detention without charge… against climate change protesters. Why? Because climate change protesters might blow shit up? No – because they might exacerbate delays at Heathrow.

Now, I wouldn’t want to be delayed while going on my holidays either, but if I am flying off somewhere, I think it’s right that I should have to go past a bunch of people pointing out what my flight was doing to the atmosphere. It might make me think a little before booking the next one. But those protesters now face the full might of anti-terror law.

The arrests have already started. According to the Guardian article, one protester has already been arrested under anti-terrorism powers. Her terrorist crime? Riding a bicycle, near Heathrow.

Perhaps they were worried that, inspired by 9/11, or by that mad fucker in Glasgow last month, she might crash her pushbike into the terminal, causing massive explosions and unimaginable loss of life. Perhaps the reason British troops could be on the ground in Afghanistan for another thirty years (The Soviet Empire failed to defeat the Taliban – it’s almost cute we think we’ll be able to) is that the Taliban have employed mass fleets of bikes, with wicker basket mounted rocket launchers, or bells with a specially modified ding-ding sound that disrupts human brain waves.

After holding her for thirty hours, they of course dropped the terrorist charges (because, in fact, she wasn’t a terrorist after all – funny that) and re-charged her with the crime – and this really is a crime, apparently – intention to cause a public nuisance. Now. If that really is a crime – and Gods help us, it seems like it is – and you were to compile a most wanted list, and you went around arresting people in the order of how big a public nuisance they were intending to create, just how many people would you arrest before you got down as far as a woman riding a bicycle near Heathrow?

I’m sure the families who live under the flight path would like to see BA’s top executives arrested on these grounds well ahead of the woman on a bike near their houses, and given that they are “the public” nearest to Heathrow, maybe we should let them decide. We could arrest Pete Doherty every time he plays a concert, as well as all the other times. James Blunt. Big Brother contestants. Jodie Marsh. Jose Mourinho. Simon Cowell. That sinner/winner bloke on Oxford Street (though I hear he has in fact been ASBO’d). Richard Littlejohn. Jordan and Peter Andre. All these people regularly cause a public nuisance and as far as I know, they have never been arrested for it. Perhaps it’s just a matter of time.

It’s funny how some people can sound a bit bonkers until they are proven right. Welcome to the police state.

If you don’t like it, please, for your own sake, go here.

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Losing your head?

“Englishmen are like their own beer: Frothy on top, dregs on the bottom, the middle excellent.”

Voltaire said that.

François-Marie Arouet (21 November 1694 – 30 May 1778), better known by the pen name Voltaire, was a French Enlightenment writer, essayist, and smartarse about English beer. Much like me – apart form the French bit. And the whole affectation about having to write under a pen name. And the global fame, obviously. And the memorable epithets.

A couple of recent posts on here have raised a bit of debate, so in a devilish mood I thought I’d throw another one in.

Imagine you’re in Starbucks. You order a cappuccino. Here it comes, in its big cup, a dense, creamy foam piled high. If you’re feeling naughty, it might have chocolate or even cinnamon sprinkles on it. What do you do? Is it:

a) Think, “Mmm, lovely, an indulgent little treat to start the day. This is way posher than a cup of Nescafe. Because this is REAL coffee, like the Italians drink, but with a really complex ordering system, like the Americans have. So I feel a little bit more stylish, like an Italian. And also, at a subconscious level, though I may not realise it, I’m associating myself with the opening scenes of Hollywood romantic comedies in the tradition of Working Girl with Melanie Griffiths. They always use moments like these to symbolise the start of yet another humdrum working day and then something wonderful happens. So in drinking this particular type of coffee I’m making my working day a bit more like Melanie Griffiths’s, so that means that I too am making myself slightly more likely to be swept off my feet by Harrison Ford fifteen years ago. Shit, I suppose I’ll have to settle for Hugh Grant, or Sandra Sodding Bullock if I’m the heterosexual male of the piece. Still, at least the coffee’s nice,” before enjoying a tiny, lost, blink-and-you’ve-missed-it moment of private bliss as the foam caresses your top lip and you mouth puckers downward through the fluffy clouds in search of the hot, dark delights it conceals.

or is it:

b) Take your coffee back to the counter and say “Oi! I think you will find I asked for a cup of COFFEE! What do you call THIS?! I think you’ll find that this is half a cup of coffee, and a lot of air. I’m not standing for this! I demand you scrape off all this foam, NOW, and fill up my paper mug with more coffee until it’s dribbling down the sides, or I shall have no alternative other than to mutter under my breath and sign a strongly worded petition!”

Which one are you? I really hope it’s not (b). Nobody would be that sad. So why would you choose (b) if we switched the capuccino for a pint of beer?

Melanie Griffith asking Harrison Ford if he likes a good head.It’s really simple: a foamy head is an integral part of a pint. It’s not something that sits on top of a pint, superfluous, it is part of the pint. A pint is not complete without a head. Want to do this on technical grounds? OK, a head releases volatiles from the hop compounds in the beer, which improve the aroma of the pint. And head formation indicates that the glass is clean, and that the beer is fresh. The world’s brewing scientists KNOW that a head is an important part of a beer. If you disagree, and you’re not one of the world’s leading brewing scientists, then I’m afraid you’re wrong.This is why I have a major problem with CAMRA’s dogged determination to fight for a change in the law to demand a full pint.First, let’s define parameters:

  • It’s acceptable for a head to constitute five per cent of the total pint. You may like it to be more than that, but if it is more, no-one’s going to call you an arse if you demand a top-up.
  • I share the view that the simplest solution to the whole controversy over a full pint would be to introduce over-size glasses with the pint mark clearly on them, to allow room for a head.
  • And I do know that pub companies have been known to ask for yields from tenants of over 100% of the volume of a barrel, effectively ordering bar staff to short-serve.

So I’m not saying there isn’t an issue here.But I’ve seen data from research sponsored by CAMRA, and it says that most consumers think you’re a bit of an arse if you keep banging on about our right to have a full pint. Alright, it doesn’t say that; I’m lying. But it really does say that most drinkers, if they were given a short measure, would simply ask for a top-up. And you know what? The vast majority of pubs would give you one, no questions asked. Most pubs these days even have signs behind the bar stating that they will give you a top-up if you are not happy with your serve.So at best, the issue is not all that big, and CAMRA’s campaign for a full pint is a waste of valuable campaigning time and energy.At worst, it’s damaging the interests of the beer drinkers it seeks to protect.Here’s a true story. Last year Paulaner lager (I know, it’s not a real ale but bear with me – it’s still a very fine beer and the story is still relevant) introduced special World Cup glasses into UK pubs – it’s a German lager, World Cup in Germany, good promotional opportunity. These were over-size glasses, with pint line clearly marked, to allow a good couple of inches of head, as is the tradition for German lagers. As a new, different, quality lager, served in its own unique glass, Paulaner could be sold at a premium price compared to other lagers, but bars weren’t too keen on stocking it. One of the importers, a friend of mine, went out to find out why. Bar staff were filling the glass to the brim, serving drinkers considerably more than a pint, and yet, serving a drink that looked, smelled and tasted a little less appetising than it should. Pubs were losing money, and at the same time, the beer was not as attractive as it should be. My mate pointed out the lined glass, the fact that you didn’t need to fill it to the top. The barman said, “Watch this.” A customer came to the bar and ordered a pint. The thing about a large head in an oversized glass is, when the beer is first poured, the head extends below the pint glass mark. But we all know that as the beer settles, the head doesn’t just evaporate; the level of beer comes up as the level of head goes down. The drinker, however, wasn’t having this. He insisted he had not been served a full pint. The barman explained what I’ve just said. So the drinker waited at the bar for several minutes, until the head had disappeared and the liquid had settled at the pint mark. Despite being proven wrong about his accusation of being short-served, despite pissing off the barman, despite allowing the head on his beer to disappear and the beer to warm up, giving himself a poorer quality pint, despite spending ten minutes more at the bar away from his mates, he was satisfied. The barman explained to my mate, better just to over-serve. Better still just to give them an ordinary lager in an ordinary pint glass.This doesn’t have to happen. But if we get what we want and we have all beer served in over-sized glasses, then it will happen – maybe not to this extreme degree, but drinkers won’t be any happier, one way or another, with what they get. And that’s because this British attitude, where we always assume we’re about to be ripped off, leeches both the trust and the joy out of what should be a happy, informal occasion. CAMRA didn’t invent this attitude, but they are encouraging it with a full pint campaign that doesn’t explain all the issues around the importance of a head, and which panders to and encourages English small-minded pettiness.Where there is a short serve, people are happy to correct it. To shout shrilly (and ultimately, inaccurately) about it could ruin perfectly good and valid beer serves. OK, I’m ready. As the late, not-so-great Mike Reid would have said, “Rrrrrrrrunaround now!”

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It’s that time of the year again…

The first week in August – time to wander down to Earl’s Court and mingle with some of the weirdest people ever to crawl into the daylight in the name of research and networking, come back home and write an article or blog entry fuelled by anger and frustration – yes, it’s Great British Beer Festival time again!

This year’s festival opened yesterday and I was down there for the trade day. And I just had one problem: there was nothing to complain about. This bloke wasn’t even there.

I feel slightly cheated. I also worry that perhaps this means I’m going native and turning into one of them through over-exposure (I’ve even started wondering about growing a beard.)

I mean, yes, there were the usual things – the fact that it’s cask only doesn’t represent the true picture of British beer. But they’re a cask-only organisation, rightly or wrongly. That’s not going to change. Yes there was the usual motley collection of weirdos, but that’s half the fun – I’d have been devastated if they weren’t there.

And of course, they still refuse to stock my books in their bookshop.

But most of the specific things I’ve ranted about in the past seem to have disappeared: the door staff were unfailingly polite; no-one was wearing T-shirts with messages like “If you drink lager you’re a moron and you’re not welcome here”, the service was mostly attentive and, again, polite. They’s sorted out the acoustics so you could hear what was happening on stage. It’s the second year at Earls Court, and they’ve made the venue look a bit nicer – there are more seating areas, though still not enough really.

They’ve brought back third of a pint glasses, and these are elegant and stemmed, so women don’t have to stand holding a pint. The pint glasses also have half and third of a pint markings, so everyone can explore more. I didn’t have a full pint over the eight hours I was there. I must have tried ten or twelve beers, but only drunk about three and a half pints. This is the future for beer festivals, and it’s the way American festivals have always been run, with the emphasis on trial and exploration rather than drunkenness.

And the ‘Bieres san Frontieres’ bit, the exception to the cask only rule (it’s great that they do this – just stupid that you can have non-cask beer if you’re foreign, but not if you’re, say, Greenwich Meantime, who brew great beers just down the river) is bigger and better than ever. We spent most of our time drinking awesome American IPAs and unfiltered, unpasteurised Czech lagers. In both cases, this is the only time these beers are available in the UK. In both cases, this makes you want to get on a plane and spend a bit of time drinking in the beer’s country of origin.

So for the first time in my beer writing career, I can heartily and unreservedly recommend that you go. It’s on till Saturday.