This is where I am till next Monday. It’s going to be a shitty Glastonbury, where only the hardiest will stay dry. They serve Woodforde’s Wherry there, grudgingly, alongside the Budweiser. I shall be drinking some.
So The Culture Show dropped the feature on pubs that I spent half a day filming with them, after coming home a day early from holiday to do it. Shit like this happens, and I’m getting used to it – it just makes you feel a bit daft after telling everyone it’s going to be on, having the top bods at the British Beer and Pub Association set their DVDs, and then… nothing.
They could have let me know, that’s all. But then, the people I’d been working with on the piece had spent a week travelling around the country, working until 3am some mornings then getting up and starting again early the next day. Maybe they were too pissed off and personally affronted at the feature being dropped to even think of letting me know.
I’ve got an ego – anyone prepared to see a book through to completion does it because they’re either egotistical, or a genius who will go mad if they don’t get it out of their heads, and I’m pretty certain I’m not in the latter camp. And anyone who stands up in front of people to read their stuff, or go on TV or radio to talk about it, or have a grinning picture taken for a newspaper, genius or not, has to have a pretty strong ego. Guilty as charged, and it hurts the ego when you get dropped from a show because they’ve got a big interview with someone like, say, Lou Reed. I mean, who? What has he contributed to popular culture over the last 40-odd years?
But the desire to see myself on screen is not just an ego thing and something for my mum to talk about, it’s also driven by the desire to see beer and pubs get a better deal in our national media. So while there’s a temptation to throw my toys out of the pram and wail that it’s not fair, you have to take it on the chin and get back in there.
Beer is the UK’s most popular drink – more than soft drinks, more than wine. And yet there is no single UK magazine or newspaper that features regular coverage of beer (they nearly all have weekly wine columns). And even people who don’t like beer would readily admit that the pub is a pretty major part of our cultural DNA. The last TV series about beer was Michael Jackson’s Beer Hunter – which was made in 1991 and hasn’t been repeated since it first aired. There are people now approaching legal drinking age who were not born the last time there was a TV series on air about our national drink.
So what can we do? We keep trying. (And that’s not the royal we – this situation is something many of my fellow beer writers are wearily familiar with). Doors are starting to open, media people are becoming more receptive to the idea of giving beer some airtime, they’re starting to initiate contact with beer people themselves, without us constantly selling the idea to them.
My BBC Radio Wales interview lasted half an hour, and apart from the rather worrying fact that the host felt the need to insert a “now remember, we’re not advocating heavy drinking, there are real dirnking problems and you should always remember to drink responsibly” disclaimer every time I spoke about actually drinking the stuff (I hope this is not the start of yet another paternalistic trend) it went really well, and it was obviously of interest.
And I recorded an episode of UKTV Food’s Market Kitchen this week, and Tana Ramsay, Gordon’s wife, even seemed to quite like a couple of the Golden ales we were tasting. Barring Lou Reed showing up to cook a mean Eggs Benedict (it somehow seems like Lou’s signature dish – I don’t know why) that episode will be airing on June 28th.
If you want to see more stuff about beer on your TV or in your newspaper, write in and tell them. It’s going to happen eventually. But it would be nice if things sped up a bit.
I got a phone call a few weeks ago. “Hi Pete. We’re having a beer and food matching dinner, five courses with a different speciality beer matched with each. We’d like to invite you along to sit on one of the tables and just talk about beer to the guests.” How much better does it get than that? Oh hang on, what was that? “We’ll pay you for your trouble.”
And so last Monday night, deeply in love with life and wondering how, increasingly, I seem to be one of the most fortunate people in the world (to be honest, it is about time) I earned money by going to a free, beautiful dinner, and talking about beer, and drinking free beer.
But that’s not the only reason I was pleased the event was happening – the dinner was being organised by multinational brewing giant and brewer of Carling – Coors UK.
I did a bit of work with Coors about five years ago, and while we had some great conversations about beer, they guys from Coors eventually had to say, “Look, Pete, it’s great you feel so passionately about interesting beer, but the future is could lager and that’s what we’re brewing and that’s all we’re interesting in brewing.”
Since then ‘speciality beer’ (a sometimes frustrating term, because it suggests anything that’s not mainstream lager must necessarily be a bit – you know – “special”, but let’s go with it for now) has seen strong growth, admittedly from a tiny base. This has mainly been driven by Coors, with Hoegaarden and Leffe. They’re fine beers, but they could do with healthy competition from someone with similar distribution clout in the UK.
So Coors have assembled a very interesting line-up to enter the fray:
Brewed in Alsace with champagne yeast instead of beer yeast, a light beer with a fruity character, like a sweeter lager. It has definite hints of gooseberries and lemon zest, and finishes with that biscuity champagne bite. Drink from a champagne flute, and coo at the lovely champagne style bubbles. Goes very well with seafood and classy hotel bars.
Rolf Munding is a serial entrepreneur who has done a lot of work in the Czech Republic. Over the last fifteen years he felt the quality of Czech pilsners – the real best lagers in the world – was declining. Whether or not this was due to dumbing down after being bought up by big brewing multinationals is something I can’t comment on, but which Rolf does – often, and forcefully. So he went looking for a Czech brewery of his own and found it in the town of Zatec. Zatec’s German name is Saaz, and if that rings a bell it’s because the hops grown around Saaz make it a beery Bordeaux – these are simply the finest lager hops in the world. So with a brewery in the middle of the best hops, Rolf hired one of the best Czech brewers, and they created Zatec. Now, Budweiser Budvar is rightly recognised as a superlative beer, one I and countless other have praised to the skies. It has a long heritage and global reputation. Zatec is at least as good.
Hmm… a wheat beer to cash in on the trend begun by Hoegaarden, brewed under the auspices of a leading UK lager brand? Haven’t we been here before with Kronenbourg Blanc? Well, no, because while I’ve got a lot of time for Kronenbourg if you find yourself drinking in a place with a limited beer selection, Kronenbourg Blanc is virtually undrinkable. I was expecting something similar from Grolsch but, oh my, was I ever wrong. Half way between a spicy, lemony Belgian wheat beer and the heady banoffee character of a German Weissbeer, Grolsch Weizen knocks spots off the competition (if we define the competition as being wheat beers that are readily available right now in the UK). A perfect summer freshener on its own, like drinking a beer sorbet, and with food it’s like Daley Thomson (when he was winning decathlons, not now). The classic beer and seafood match, with the lemony creaminess of the beer complementing the food… check. The tricky match with hot, spicy food, assertive enough not to be swamped by your favourite curry and yet clean and refreshing enough to break down the heat… check. We haven’t found a dish yet that this beer doesn’t add something to.
An old, often overlooked classic from the Belgian ale stable. Antwerp’s de Koninck is better known by British beer buffs as a classic session ale, around 5%, to be drunk cool from a chalice glass on a hot day, brown and malty and slightly chewy but clean and refreshing too. Palm is very much the same. It went wonderfully with rich red meat. It’s a difficult one – I don’t have as much to say about it, but that shouldn’t make you think it’s not as good as the others – there’s just less of a story about it. But it is interesting about what happens when you put ale in a bottle and call it Belgian – people who would never drink a pint of real ale love Palm when they try it, which to me says they would also love real ale if they would give it a chance. Which brings us to…
Worthington White Shield
Not so much a speciality beer as a beer legend, WWS is now being promoted as part of the Coors speciality range. This is an extraordinary, complex, multi-faceted beer. There’s all sorts going on in there: bags of fruit, loads of spices, a hint of freshly baked bread, some treacle, caramel and toffee, all suspended in a fine balance, with no one flavour overpowering the other. We had this with a mature, assertive cheddar and people at our table who were not really beer fans were almost swooning with pleasure.
So if you see any of these beers, check them out. You won’t be disappointed. And bearing in mind that these beers are marketed in the UK by the same folk who bring us Reef and Carling, please remember you need to reward the things they’re doing well if you want them to shift attention from the things they’re doing that are – shall we say – not making such a vital contribution to the cornucopia of flavour and character available in our pubs.
Tonight (8th June) at about 8.15pm, I’m being interviewed by BBC Radio Wales to promote the new edition of Three Sheets and talk about pubs in general. That’s nice, isn’t it?
The mass-market paperback edition of Three Sheets is in shops now, with a much more direct, does-what-it-says-on-the-tin cover.
Encouragingly, it’s on promotion in Borders and Books Etc. People sometimes ask if being involved in Three for the price of two or Buy one get one half price deals is a good thing or not. It is. I get the same pittance as my share whatever price the book sells at, and the fact that they’re putting it out on tables and promoting it means they are putting marketing support behind it, not ignoring it. They can pick and choose what books they feature, so it’s a real result to get that kind of visibility in-store.
And there are some great quotes on the back cover:
“Carlsberg don’t publish books. But if they did, they would probably come up with Three Sheets to the Wind.” – Metro
“The story of the armless drinker in Galway is worth the price of the book alone.” – Express
“A well-intentioned, good-humoured, flush-faced kind of book, which grabs you firmly by the coat lapels and will not let you go until they’ve regaled you with one more hilarious story” – Guardian
“The strength of Brown’s breezy, informed book is showing how beer reflects national culture rather than defines it” – Financial Times
You know you want it…
They say that we leave the world as we entered it – bald, incontinent, wrinkled and without much of a clue as to what’s going on (OK, I might have taken liberties with the elaboration of that piece of wisdom, but the sentiment is as it was meant).
“Portland has a pub on every corner, but many are ‘locals only'”.
“Does it matter which one?” she pleads.
“So long as it’s a pint, I don’t mind,” I smile, trying to be encouraging, not scary.
Eventually, I have to say, she produces a perfectly poured, perfectly conditioned pint of Bombardier. I spot the concrete and picnic tables outside the back door, sheltered from the constant wind but catching the sun as it’s just starting to change down gears, and I go out to sit down with one of the books I’m using for research.
Soon I’m joined by two small children who decide it would be fun to goad the dog. Then there are five of them, all trying to provoke the dog in different ways. Parents come out every now and then, clock the situation, the size of the dog, the increasing hysteria of the children and shout at them. What they shout is “Here are your crisps!” dropping packets onto the nearest table before ducking back inside.
“What are you doing?”
An eight year old boy is standing next to me, squinting into my face.
“I’m reading a book,” I reply, realising as I say it how stupid I am in my tiny hope that this will carry the hint that I want to be left alone. Of course it won’t . He’s eight. It’ll only mean more questions.
“Are you writing about it?”
“Yes,” I lie, making sure he can’t see what I’m scribbling into my notebook.
“How long have you been doing it?”
“A long time.”
“Are you writing a book?”
“Man, I don’t get that,” he says, shaking his head, switching his attention from me back to the dog.
I re-read about a third of a page of William Hickey’s memoirs before “DON’T DISTURB THE MAN!”
A seven year-old girl is standing by the table staring at me, shouting at her four year-old sister, who whimpers “I’m not”. Of course she’s not.
“Do you like writing?” asks the older girl, chronic short-term memory loss having eradicated her stern warning of a moment ago.
“Do you like typing?”
“That’s my favourite, typing.”
“Is it? That’s good.”
“You have very neat handwriting.”
“I like your phone.”
“What are you writing about?”
“Beer and pubs.”
“I like pubs.”
The boy rejoins us and they ask me where I come from. When I tell them London we have a debate about whether London is busier than the Isle of Portland (“I like to read books but I just don’t have the time these days” sighs the seven year-old girl who lives in this sleepy seaside fishing village.) Then we have an argument about whether there are any real-live Power Rangers in London. The boy is an authority on this subject and dismisses me out of hand when I suggest there aren’t.
“And leave the man alone!” shouts the bloke as he disappears.
“I’m HELPING him!” shouts the older girl.
By now I’m feeling really out of place. I wonder if I should be here, in the middle of all these kids, like an interloper in a kindergarten – a feeling that, as a middle-aged bloke on his own, makes me feel quite self-conscious. Then I remember that I’m in a pub, a place I’ve always thought of as an adult’s playground. I come to places like this to get away from children. And here’s this eight year old girl, helping me, by telling me how much she likes pubs.
Time to go.