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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.

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Pete’s Big Adventure, or, Can You Take Obsession With a Beer Style Too Far?

I wrote on here a few months ago about the plan for my new book. Well now it’s official. From September to December this year, I’m recreating the historic journey of India Pale Ale from Burton-on-Trent to Kolkata (Calcutta).

I like IPA. It’s my favourite beer style. I love the heady, citrus and tropical fruit rush of the American new wave, and revere those few examples of English beer that are faithful to the style rather thn simply appropriating the name for an average session bitter. And when I was challenged to do a great beer journey… well. As soon as the idea emerged, I had to do it.

So on 16th August, I’m in Burton-on-Trent brewing an authentic 19th century IPA with Steve Wellington, head brewer at the White Shield Brewery. At the beginning of September, we take a pin of this beer (four and a half gallons) from Burton to London, hopefully by canal (like it went before 1839), but if not, by train (like it went in its heyday).

Then on 16th September I leave the UK… on a P&O cruise ship! This gets me as far as Tenerife, where a few days later I board the Barque Europa (top), a nineteenth century tall ship who made me cry the first time I saw her. Tenerife was often a staging post for the old East Indiamen, so while it sounds like a great holiday, it’s still a kosher historical recreation.

As part of the extended crew of the Europa, Barry and I (that’s what I’m calling my beer – it’s short for ‘barrel’) sail south and across the Atlantic, and land in Salvador, Brazil, at the end of October. From here I have to cheat slightly, getting a flight down to Rio, where I board the Carribbean (right), a modern container ship.

Sailing ships would often drift, becalmed, for weeks in the mid-Atlantic doldrums, and would sometimes end up as far off their route as Brazil, so again, this is still accurate.

The Caribbean sails without stopping down the coast of Brazil, across the South Atlantic, round the Cape of Good Hope, and up the coast of East Africa. Then we stop at various points around the Arabian peninsular (including Iran) before landing in Mumbai. From Mumbai, I’m getting the train across to Kolkata (Calcutta), which used to be the main base of the East India Company. There, we’ll taste the beer and find out of the sea voyage, with its constant pitch and roll, and its thirty degrees celcius temperature change, really does condition the beer in the way we’ve always told each other it did.

This is an enormously exciting journey personally, but I also hope it’s of interest to anyone who brews or drinks IPA. And it’s an opportunity to put Burton-on-Trent back on the map as one of the world’s great brewing centres. No-one outside beer aficionado circles is aware of Burton’s former glories, and that’s something this book hopes to change.

I’ll be posting updates on here as frequently as I can. The book is due out in Summer 2008.And if you know anyone with a narrowboat on the English canals who might be interested in doing the first bit, please let me know!

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Pete’s Pub Etiquette – the first of an occasional series

Hello, pub-goers!We all know that one of the most difficult aspects of going to the pub is toilet etiquette. It can be stressful for straight men, because as we know, gay men sometimes go to the toilet too, and any straight man knows that if he is in the toilet with a gay man, the gay man is sure to find him irresistably attractive and make inappropriate advances towards him. This means that not only do straight guys need to be on the lookout for gay men lurking in pub toilets, they also need to do absolutely everything possible to ensure they don’t send out any signals whatsoever that they thenselves might be a bit gay.This has given us the elaborate urinal ritual – so delicately coded that often, when you try to explain it to women they refuse to believe it. But hey, it makes going to the toilet more interesting! But where do you draw a line in your attempts to prove your assertive, hetero masculinity?Here’s a couple of thoughts.Say I don’t know you, but we’re in the same pub and we go to the toilet at the same time. You’re just in front of me, and you’ve clocked me and are aware that I’m a few paces behind you.

If you were to hold the toilet door open for me as you walk through, instead of allowing it to swing shut in my face, I promise this won’t make me worry that you’re inviting me inside for some hot bum sex. Instead, it’ll just make me think you have manners and aren’t some sort of twat.

Why not try it next time?

And on a similar vein – washing your hands after you’ve been to the toilet wouldn’t make you look less manly. This message goes out with particular urgency if the reason you were in the pub toilet in the first place is that you’re currently on duty behind the fucking bar. Until next time!

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Pure Genius? Or sheer idiocy?

A couple of weeks ago, I was asked by Marketing magazine to write a comment for their ‘Brand Healthcheck’ page, which looks at brands that are facing a rocky time and asks people what they should do. This one on Guinness was prompted by the fact that sales are down in the UK and Ireland, and there are rumours that Diageo (Guinness’ owners) are thinking of closing down the St James’ Gate brewery in Dublin, and brewing somewhere else more cost-effectively.

Here’s what I said:

Anyone at Diageo who thinks it’s a good idea to close Guinness’ Dublin brewery should maybe also give some thought to abandoning the famous two-part pour, making it paler – lager-coloured say – brewing it in a shed just off the M1 and changing the name to something snappier – what about Harp? Oh, hang on…

Guinness is an unparalleled icon in the beer market, peerless in terms of quality. The brand team that walks away from this kills the brand.

Everyone I’ve ever met who has worked on Guinness knows what the real problem is – a problem that was recorded at least as far back as the 1930s. People think it’s heavy, harsh and bitter, a challenging taste, whereas it’s actually silky, smooth and deceptively drinkable. They think it’s a meal in a glass, whereas a pint of Guinness actually has fewer calories than lager.

Beer is about heritage, romance and tradition, whereas taste is transitory and often cyclical. Guinness has always stuck to its guns, and has ridden out all short term trends. It should continue to do so.[Then you have to give a few bullet point, off-the-cuff marketing tips]

  • Step up experiential marketing – confront the misconception about the product head on by getting people to try it.
  • Events with vertical tastings of the many different Guinnesses available would only deepen people’s appreciation of the brand.
  • Don’t waver on ritual, and don’t lose the romance of the product
  • Try food pairings – why are so few people aware of what an amazing match Guinness is with chocolate desserts?

It’s not that difficult, is it? I would bet my house on the fact that, if Guinness closed their brewery as a cost-saving measure, they would find themselves with a more impoverished business twelves months later. Why do so few marketers (and I say this as a marketer) fail to see that it’s the romance of beer that contributes to profitable beer brands? Heritage, superstition, a respect for tradition, tribalism, belligerence, call it what you will, love it or hate it, all brand owners know that there is a huge but intangible value in the whole invisible history around any given brand. You can’t prove it’s there, so you can’t quantify the impact of its loss. Until it’s too late. And apart from that, isn’t the world simply a duller place when this kind of thing gets overruled in favour of simple, measurable metrics? (Sorry, but that’s what they call them – numbers.) Hoegaarden closed the brewery in Hoegaarden, and there are rumours of industrial unrest leading to supplies runnign out in the UK – just as competitors like Grolsch Weizen appear on the scene. Boddington’s clsoed its Strangeways brewery, and a year later announced that it was withdrawing advertising support (I would imagine, though Inbev would deny this, because the shrunken value of the brand doesn’t justify a big spend).Christ, it’s hardly rocket science is it?

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What does it take to be fit to run a pub?

Just back from a night out at the theatre. We’d all love to think that someone who lives in London goes out to the theatre all the time, but it’s not like that – we went to see a play because it had John Simm in it, and I can’t remember the last time we went out to the theatre. The play was brilliant though.

Anyway, after we left the theatre, we went to a fairly iconic West End pub, which I won’t name. But if you’re a Sam Smith’s fan lurking near Trafalgar Square, you can probably guess.

Anyway, it’s got some really nice partitioned snugs, which were all full when we arrived. We got a perch near the end of one of them, which contained a young couple on one side of the table, and a pretty girl, maybe 22-ish, across from them. It looked like the couple were there with the girl, though I might be wrong. Anyway, the girl decided she’d be more comfortable lying flat on the seat at her side, and the people she was with left. If they did know her, then deciding to abandon her just as she slipped into unconsciousness makes them without doubt the villains of the piece – the kind of people for whom my wife Liz is happy to suspend the embargo she has on the use of the word “cunt”. So these cunts left, and this girl is lying prone, quite a bit of shopping on the table in front of her, her eyes slightly open and a bit gluey. It doesn’t look good, so Liz checks that she’s actually still breathing. She is, and her legs are moving, so I think we’re OK to leave her, especially since the bar staff are trying to get us to leave.

But then these bar staff come past once, twice, three times, collecting the empty crisp packets and glasses in front of the girl, but ignoring the comatose customer herself. Well no, that’s not quite right – the third time, the bar person – a spotty Australian youth – comments “Jesus, that’s disgusting. I’ve never been drunk like that in my life,” before walking away. So he’s clocked that this is someone who is in no state to get home on her own, but the idea of taking some kind of action to resolve this doesn’t occur to him. Neither does the possibility that the girl might have had her drink spiked, or even intentionally taken something other than alcohol.

Liz and her mate Joan decide not to leave until we know this girl is going to be OK, but the bar staff are insistent that we leave. They tell us they’ve called an ambulance and that the manager is coming down, so we move outside. Then we see they have revived the girl to the point that she is just about able to walk, and are trying to shunt her out of the pub so she’s not their problem any more. Liz and Joan make thier presence felt again (a fat northern bloke sticking his oar in was probably not what was needed) and they eventually agree to look after her until an ambulance arrives.

Look, we don’t know what the story was: she might have just been really pissed. She might have been an insufferable pain in the arse who her ‘friends’ couldn’t wait to get away from. She might have been a regular. But we have this tendency to say “It’ll probably be OK, and anyway it’s none of my business.” And 99% of the time this is probably right. But it strikes me that every date rape victim, every person who has ever been attacked and/or robbed while pissed, probably thought “It’ll probably be OK” up to the point that it was too late.

Here was a girl who was quite clearly incapable of getting home on her own, and quite clearly not with anyone who was left in the bar. So I genuinely don’t know, and am asking if anyone does: what are the legal responsibilities of the bar/pub in this situation? And if we wanted to say “fuck whatever the law says, what about basic human fucking decency”, what moral obligation do bar staff and management have?

Let’s have a heated debate!

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It’s official – I’m the second-best beer drinker in Britain!

The All-Party Parliamentary Beer Group is a group of MPs that does what it says in the title – MPs without any party agenda cooperate to promote and celebrate British beer. Every year they have an annual shindig, one of the highlights of which is they name the person they think has done the most for beer in the preceeding year, and award them the honour of “Beer Drinker of the Year”.

Previous winners include Kenneth Clarke MP and Prince Charles, and this year’s winner was Michelin-starred chef Michel Roux, who deserved it after introducing beer lists to complement the wine selection in restaurants like le Gavroche and Aubergine, spurring people to think about beer in a completely different light.

But the runner up to Monsieur Roux was… me! Of course, this being the beer industry – which we love for its ramshackle charm, don’t we – this year, like every other year, I wasn’t actually invited to the dinner and had no idea it was happening. So it was a surreal birthday morning (it’s my birthday today – I’m thirty-bastard-nine) when I started getting e-mails and phone calls congratulating me on something I had no idea I’d done.

I’m told by those present that John Grogan MP, the chair of the group, read out a lengthy extract from Three Sheets, some of the stuff I wrote about how to enjoy beer properly, getting the buzz rather than getting wankered, and how the way to encourage it is to promote the virtues of this lovely middle state between sobriety and drunkenness rather than just telling people not to drink as much.

I’m absolutely delighted about this. It means a lot when people say they found the book funny, but the idea that people as influential as this are reading the serious message within the book and taking it on board makes me happy beyond words. It makes the abject misery of having to go around the world drinking beer seem worthwhile (Oh, alright – it makes the £20,000 cost, the two stone extra weight and the two years of writing seem worthwhile).

And I’m very chuffed about being the second best beer drinker in Britain. If I’d won I’d have felt like a bit of a cock telling people I was Beer Drinker of the Year. It’s a bit like ‘Rear of the Year’ or something. Being second best beer drinker in Britain – now that’s cool. I can put that on the bottom of e-mails and stuff.

I’ll have to see if I can get Michel to buy me a pint.

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John White

The world of beer is a bit less interesting and much sadder today after the death of one of my fellow beer writers, John White. He was only 62.

I met John through the British Guild of Beer Writers – we’ve served on the committee together for the last two or three years. Unlike the rest of us, I don’t think he ever missed a meeting. While some of us grumbled about the venue being on the other side of London from where we live, it made no difference to him – he had to come down from Grimsby every time.

Beer creates strange bedfellows, and I don’t think John and I would have ever been in the same room if it wasn’t for the Guild. When I first started writing about beer I liked to think of myself as bringing something new and fresh to it, creating a broader appeal. I saw people like John as the Old Guard – people for whom beer was a hobby, in the quintessential English tradition, bordering on the eccentric, and often crossing that border. On a day-to-day basis, it’s very easy to see other people only in terms of an agenda, if that agenda is different from your own. It’s only when something like this happens that you stop and appreciate the fully-rounded person for the first time. That’s a lesson I intend to take on board.

Beer was John’s life. He devoted countless hours and days to scrupulously cataloguing bars and beers, particularly Belgian beers, which were his real passion. He organised ‘beer hunts’ to Belgium and Germany, always seeking out the new. I spent four days in Belgium with him a couple of years ago, and if we ever went ot a bar that just had the same old selection on its list he’d be impatient, protesting that we weren’t getting anything new here, and we didn’t have long, so let’s go to this bar he knew that had a really extensive list. We were the guests of the Wallonia Tourist Board, and they didn’t know what to do with him. John was dismissive of brands like Duvel and Chimay because they were too popular, and he suspected them of having compromised on product character and brewing integrity to gain that popularity. We younger writers used to laugh at the idea of brands that most people haven’t heard of being considered too popular, but I guess it’s no different from what I used to be like around music when I was an 18 year-old, John Peel-loving indie kid. I’m not like that about music any more, but John kept that wide-eyed passion for beer his entire life. And as a result, he introduced me to Westverlateren, and I have to admit that he was right.

Another Guild committe member once told me that John referred to me as “the fourth best beer writer in Britain”. I’m still not sure if this was a drunken wind-up, but it’s easier to believe than not. From his very vocal passion about other writers, we quickly worked out who the other three would be, before moving on to speculate just how far down the list John had made it while cataloguing our vocation. We reckoned he’d probably got anything up to fifty of us in there somewhere, using a scale consisting of several key criteria giving an overall average score.

As you might expect from this description, John was the kind of guy who harboured a formidable collection of beer memorabilia in his cellar. The floods that have swamped large parts of the north of England swept into that cellar last week. John apparently lost most of his stuff, and was trying to salvage what was left and store it in his loft, when he collapsed and died.

It would be mawkish to speculate further on thse scant details, which I only heard third hand, so I won’t. But it strikes me as the saddest thing I’ve heard in a long time.

I and the people I count as friends within the beer community didn’t always see eye-to-eye with John, but we never doubted his passion, commitment and energy, his single-minded devotion to evangelising the beers he loved. He was the kind of person who had the potential to make committee meetings a real pain in the arse: he never did, not once. On the contrary, he was unfailingly polite and considerate, often very funny, always a fine drinking buddy.

Regards and cheers, John.

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Drinking from the Green Cup.

When you’re knee-deep in shit and you realise you’re not actually capable of making the effort fo walking for 45 mins to catch that band you were wanting to see; when you queue 20 minutes for a cup of tea, 30 for a carboard tray of noodles and 45 for a toilet, sometimes you want to cauterize yourself from your surroundings.
Enter, Brothers Pear Cider, a Glastonbury institution since 1995. The Brothes bar is near the Jazz World stage at Glasto, and there’s a nice flat area full of flags flapping in the breeze where you can sit down and savour.
Brothers Cider is 7%, bone dry, tastes of next to nothing and yet is incredibly moreish. Pints disappear in minutes. Most drinks at Glastonbury are served in the same white paper cups from the Workers Beer Company, festooned with the logo of which ever is the official beer. Brothers Cider is the only product with its own paper cups, whic are a distinctive green.
And whenever you see a real victim at Glastonbury, the people who think it’s a good idea to strip down to their undies and mud surf; those who unzip their flies and start urinating into the slime that is the field in front of the Other Stage; those who in the middle of the afternoon can be found lying prone in the mud, face down – they always have a green cup next to them.
A couple of years ago this led us to invent a new euphemism for extreme drunkenness. Whenever you see someone so drunk they have lost control, when you look into their flat, lifeless eyes and realise that most higher order brain functions have shut down, leaving only the basic motor functions running, you can say they have been “drinking from the green cup”.
Most of the time, I value my sanity. One of my favourite phrases that I have ever coined in my writing, which I try to use as often as possible, is “surely the best nights out are the ones you can remember.” For all the drinking I did in Three Sheets, I was only ever properly pissed about three or four times. For these reasons, I’ve always given the Brothers a wide berth. But on Friday at Glastonbury 07, when we realised it was going to be yet another mud bath, having never missed a muddy Glastonbury but having missed most of the nice ones, it all became a bit too much.
We approached the Brothers bar, which had a crowd almost as deep as the crowd around the Jazz stage.
We got our pints.
And I decided to get my notebook out.
Here, unedited, is what I decided to write in it:
“What was I thinking about? I have no idea – I’ve succumbed to drinking Brothers Cider. Like Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, I know what’s going to happen: I know my mind is forfeit, but there’s nothing I can do about it.”
The next bit seems to have been written later, because the hand becomes much less steady. And because the content has taken an alarming turn in the direction of bollocks:
“The workings of the mind become a succession of frozen shards with no forward narrative, no way to make any sense of sequential thought. It’s a bit like being let into some kind of seceret brotherhood – feeling the base plates in my mind shift, and knowing I won’t be able to remember any of this tomorrow. Liz, after half a pint, falls asleep. Chris, after half a pint, gets up and starts dancing. I, after half a pint, start scribbling shite. One foot is squelchy; the other is perfectly dry.”

Christopher Gittner, doing the dance of the Green CupI don’t remember writing any of this. Some time later, I’ve attempted to write in hieroglyphs I can just make out:”African fellas on the jazz stage. It wouldn’t be quite the same if we went to Mali and played them On Ilkley Moor Bah’t ‘at, would it? Is it just that it’s diff? Or is it just better?”I think we know the answer to that one.The last thing I wrote that afternoon was:”Wake me up when someone gives a shit.” I guess it was only a few seconds later when this photo of me was taken:
Kids, just say no.

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It’s summer, it’s raining, it can only mean one thing…

Time for Barnsley to purge the squad of anyone who looks capable fo scoring goals.

Danny Nardiello slept and ate pies through the middle of last season but woke up towards the end just in time to score the goals that kept us up in the Championship. These excellent performances mean he cannot stay at the club, and this week he duly moved to QPR. Admittedly this time Barnsley wanted him to stay and seem very upset at his last-minute change of heart, but why can we never hold on to anyone who threatens to get a double figure goal tally?