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Idle Beer

The Idler is a magazine that celebrates freedom, fun, and the fine art of doing nothing,” according to the intro in the front of each twice yearly issue.

It’s an antidote to modern life, a reminder that we don’t have to subsribe to a life that is defined by brands and celebrities, where shopping can be considered an end in itself, where we read newspapers to make ourselves feel anxious, buy goods to make ourselves feel better, running up debt that makes us carry on behaving like good little workers.
OK, so I’m a heavily in debt, anxious workaholic who seeks solace in a constant supply of books, CDs and beer, but that doesn’t mean I can’t aspire to an idler, freer life, and you can too.
Why not start with the latest issue, which came out at the beginning of May and contains an article from The Idler’s new beer correspondent – me! My first idle piece, naturally enough, is on the art of home brewing, and why it’s no longer about a kit of syrup from Boots that you stick in the airing cupboard until you’re absolutely sure it’s dead, before drinking it through gritted teeth and telling each other hey, it’s only 10p a pint, before getting the shits for a week.
Available via the link, or commonly found in the humour section of good bookshops

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“Have you ever been to Ireland?”

One of the highlights of my beery way of life is that you get invited to talk about beer in places you would probably otherwise never get to. It doesn’t matter whether they’re glamorous or ordinary or something or nothing in between – you just don’t know where you might get some bits of gold.

So last weekend was the Southport Food and Drink Festival and a beer tasting and reading in front of sixty people, one of the biggest crowds I’ve performed in front of – if you can really describe reading some bits out of my book and talking a bit about beer, and drinking some, as performing. Food festival crowds are always big because people are out, their minds are open, they’ll give it a go.

The highlight of the evening was after I read a passage from Three Sheets about my trip to Galway, the story of Billy and Declan and the animal-loving Guinness drinker with no arms. “The story about the armless drinker in Galway is worth the price of the book alone,” said the Express in a review which is now proudly splashed across the back of the Three Sheets paperback, and which shows the Express can get it right every now and again.

The story of the animal lover with no arms, and the circumstances under which I heard it, is quite a long passage, and I like to think of it as the most concise possible definition of the Craic (it’s about a thousand words long), all humour and zaniness and impromptu music and bars falling silent for solo vocalists, save for the constant hiss of Guinness taps.
The Crane Bar, haunt of the animal lover with no arms

The story got a round of applause all of its own, which has never happened before. It was my finale, so I opened up the floor to questions, and the first one was from a guy near the front, seventyish, who put up his hand and asked, “Have you ever been to Ireland?”

Well, what do you say? The other 59 people in the room were in hysterics, which at least showed they’d been listening. Eventually I managed to say “Yes I have. I have witnesses,” pointing to the rest of the room.

Afterwards, realising his faux pas, he came up to explain. “I didn’t realise you’d actually written the book!” He said. “I thought you were reading someone else’s.” That’s right, I wanted to say, I’m just a bloke off the street who wandered in (after travelling half way across the country), but I found a really interesting book by this other bloke so I thought I’d just read some bits out to you.

I got invited back to Southport to do my thing at the Comedy Festival later in the year. I hope he’s there. I can see a double act in the offing.

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Telly appearance in delay shocker!

The good news – they’re making the bit on pubs longer than they originally planned, which is nice.

The bad news – that means extra editing time, so I’ll now be on telly on Saturday 16th June, not Saturday 26th May. They’re also running it then so it’s closer to the smoking ban, and a bit more topical.

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That BBC shoot (below) – the blooper reel…

I really wanted my highest profile TV appearance to date to go well. New clobber was pressed and tastefully matched, and I suggested we shoot in the George in Borough High Street, the best surviving example of a galleried coaching inn. I thought it would be atmospheric and quiet.

The landlord made it clear he was blasé about people filming in there and offered no special treatment, so we were in the old bar with one table of drinkers who had been there for the day. In the vast array of drunk words we have at our disposal, any of the graphic sweary ones would have been a good descriptor, but more than any of these they were definitely in their cups.

Filming proved tough – every time we started talking they would raise their voices to talk over us. Eventually the crew’s runner offered to buy them a pint if they’d be quiet while we filmed, and this seemed to go down very well. We made good progress, and were nearing the end of the interview when I started talking about the benign anarchy, the unpredictability, of the pub. It’s the reason in all those jokes, a man, a bear, a piece of tarmac or a lobster always walk into a pub. You could go out for a quiet drink on a Tuesday night and it might turn out to be a night you remember for years. Because in a pub, absolutely anything can happen.

As I said the words “anything can happen”, a deep, sustained bowking noise, like a fifteen second long subaquatic belch, drowned me out. Zina, my interviewer, looked over my shoulder. Her eyes went glassy. “He’s throwing up. Into his glass,” she whispered.

We were petrified, rooted to our places, waiting to see what would happen next, trying to breathe through our mouths so we didn’t smell the puke and start a circle-jerk of hurling. We tried another take, from the top, and were drowned out by dregs of pukey sputum being dislodged from mouth and nose, and more liquid belches from deep within. And again. Every time I got to “anything can happen”, I was joined by a chorus of Woorgh! Hach! Yuurk. Haaawwch! Haawwch! Youwulloooiiich!

Zina had to go outside. Then, mercifully, we were saved. A horrified barmaid swiftly ejected the group and set about clearing up the carnage. She cleared up everything apart from the puke-filled glass. I didn’t dare turn around, knowing that if I saw it, it would be my turn next. The glass sat alone on its table, exuding a kind of talismanic power, not to mention a rapidly congealing stench.

Eventually the barmaid came back. I didn’t dare turn around to see what she was going to try and do – I have no idea whether she was attempting to get it into a bin bag or a box or something. A part of me was expecting the chunky smash that came next, as the puke-filled glass hit the floor. We couldn’t stand it any longer. The whole crew was in hysterics, not laughing at her, but at the ridiculousness of what happens when you try to shoot a piece about how great pubs are in one of the country’s oldest and most beautiful inns.

The waitress didn’t see our point of view though. “This is NOT funny! This is HORRIBLE! I really, really do not think you should be laughing!”

We tried to apologise, but it was no use – she pretty much told us to get out, and that was the end of the piece. I wonder if BBC crews can get some kind of campaign medal for delivering a piece against such adversity?

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A Passage to India – New Book Under Way

I’ve started work on a third book. It’ll be my best one yet, if I can make it work – but that is a very big if.

It started when Three Sheets to to the Wind won the British Guild of Beer Writers Travel Bursary Award just before Christmas. I got a nice cheque inside a rather wonderful tankard, and everyone simply assumed I’d be spending it on a new adventure rather than a quiet weekend away with Liz, my wife, detoxing at some retreat somewhere.

Chris then suggested that Three Sheets was more a list of great beer locations than a travel book per se – what about writing about a great beer journey? But beer doesn’t travel well. There aren’t really any great beer journeys unless… oh, there is one. Not just a big one; an epic one.

India Pale Ale was developed as a beer style in the heyday of the East India Company, when this private corporation ruled half a continent. Before refrigeration it was too hot to brew in India, and it took about six months for beer exports to get there. The beer was often flat, sour and undrinkable when it arrived. India Pale Ale (IPA) was an attempt to get beer there in decent condition. It was brewed with loads of hops – which act as a natural preservative, high alcohol content – again, alcohol has grat preservative qualities – and was dry-hopped for good measure (fresh hops added to the cask before it is sealed).

It was then sent on a journey through the Atlantic, round the Cape of Good Hope, and across the Indian Ocean to Calcutta. The constant rolling motion and the temperature fluctuations of up to 30 degrees C didn’t ruin IPA like other beers – these conditions matured it in a unique way, so it arrived not just drinkable, but bright and sparkling – perfect for the climate. If you’re familiar with this story, you’ll know a few more of the details, but not much more. IPA is currently enjoying a bit of a resurgence and people are doing all sorts with it – making it with new styles of hop, pushing up the alcohol content… but no-one has recreated the journey that made the beer what it is.

So I’m having a Burton-on-Trent brewer recreate a beer to the old-style recipe, and we’re going to take it by barge from Burton, then by ship, on the old IPA route. Not so much ‘Round Ireland with a Fridge’ as ‘Round the Cape with a Cask.’

It’s going to take about three or four months. We might get attacked by pirates. But it’s one of those ideas that, once you’ve had it, you simply have to follow through.

I’ll be posting regular updates here thoiughout the journey, and we have some speculative interest from TV, press and radio people.

So it’s very exciting. The only problem is finding a boat.

Since the Suez Canal opened in 1869, people don’t go this way any more. That’s what makes it interesting – but interesting is often just another word for difficult. If you know anyone with a ship who might be interested…

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On the telly – Saturday 26th May

The Culture Show phoned. It’s a programme on BBC2 that does what it says on the tin – it talks about culture. So you get the divine Lauren Laverne (right) hosting and interviewing bands, Mark Kermode on film, and Zina Saro-Wiwa talking to me about pubs! Why is the British pub unique? Is it in trouble? Why is pub culture so important? Find out on Saturday 26th May at about 7.50pm.

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New Edition of Three Sheets to the Wind hits the shops

It’s got a new cover – not this one on the left, but I don’t have a picture of the new one yet. It’s a lot more direct – a lovely deep blue with a big pint on it. It’s cheaper – the first edition was what’s called the ‘trade paperback’, which is half way between a paperback and a hardback. This new one is the ‘mass-market paperback’ and it’ll be going for £7.99. It’s got some great quotes from newspaper reviews on the back! An ideal Father’s day present – it’s in the shops on 1st June.

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Back in the Blogsphere

Well, that was a feeble attempt at blogging – three posts, then nothing for nine months! First rule of being a writer – you write.

So I’m going to take it a bit more seriously from now on. The life of a beer writer is filled with all sorts of interesting stuff, not all of which ends up as a piece in a magazine or book. From now on it’s all going on here, and I mean that most sincerely.

Expect drunken antics, beery eccentrics, and the occasional post about something other than beer.

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Great British Beer Festival – is it getting actually quite good at last?

This week saw the first GBBF at Earl’s Court, rather than Olympia. It was an opportunity to change some aspects of the festival that have been attracting mounting crticism… from, er, me, as well as a growing number of other people.

The thing about CAMRA is they are very touchy about criticism. In Man Walks into a Pub I praised them for their undeniable achievements, then said what many feel about them today: that they are luddite, out-of-touch, reactionary, and are therefore acting as a force against the spread of decent beer rather than for it. People in CAMRA only noticed the last bit, and the reaction was a George Bush-like “You’re either 100% unquestioningly for us, or you must be completely against us.”

Over the last few years I’ve repeated my criticism of the GBBF as a closed shop, elitist event, but always with some positve suggestions for what they could do. CAMRA, usually in the shape of self-aponted attack dog Roger Protz, have again and again responded that there was no validity in any points raised.

But at the same time, I got to know a few of the full-time officers within CAMRA, and of course they turned out to be decent, friendly, articulate, intelligent people who didn’t agree with everything I said, but could see the validity in some of my comments. (I’m not 100% right. No-one ever is.) I’ve not met Mike Benner, the newish CEO, but from conversations I’ve had with people who know him I’m pretty sure he’s an intelligent pragmatist. Under his leadership, CAMRA are showing unmistakable signs that they have discovered not just the twentieth century, but nmaybe even the twenty-first.

The trouble seems to be that these people are at odds, not necessarily with the bulk of CAMRA’s membership, but with the hardcore of activists who seem to wish it was still 1950. CAMRA is an organisation that depends on volunteers, and it seems that many of the people who are the most enthusiastic about volunteering also hold the most extreme views (and the most eccentric dress sense). These are the people who follow the classic English hobbyist stereotype. Beer is not just a drink for them, it is a Hobby. Campaigning is what they do. But in my opinion, at the same time as shouting about what beer should be like, they don’t seem to want masses of people to agree with them. Rather than make real ale a welcoming environment for the novice, they enjoy the cliquey aspect and delight in knowing more than anyone else. If you aren’t as knowledgeable as them, there’s no point talking to you.

Sadly, at GBBF this sect have tended to be the dominant force. It’s their day in the sun, the highlight of their year. They volunteer to man the stalls and do the doors and for five days they have a bit of power. Apart form being frankly freakish to look at in many cases, they are rude, unfriendly, and make absolutely no effort to help you make an interesting beer choice.

So was this year any different?

Well, it’s important to give credit where it’s due, and a sizeable amount is due here. We had third of a pint tasting glasses to try to help move the focus from downing pints to sampling the vast range on offer. We had the introduction of a new visually-based tasting system, similar to what you see on wine bottles, so that people can evaluate different beers and learn what styles they prefer. This system was all around the building and was used liberally throughout the programme by the brewers who have signed up for it. Even where it wasn’t used, the programme tasting notes continue to become clearer, so you can get a sense of the beer even if you have no idea what a fuggle or maris otter is.

And someone seems to have had a word with the volunteers as well. The Warsaw Pact-style officiousness was gone from the main door and the baggage search desk, replaced by a courteousness that actually made you feel special. All these are huge – and important – improvements.

But… (you knew there was going to be a but, didn’t you?)

A few years ago the Whychwood brewery introduced a new ad campaign for Hobgoblin lager which showed a 1970s prog rock album cover-style goblin holding up his pint and saying, “What’s the matter, lagerboy? Afraid you might taste something?” It’s a good ad if it’s aimed at people who already drink real ale because it reinforces the sense that they have made the right choice, that they know something, that they are better than the people who perhaps look down their noses at them when they order something other than a pint of Fosters in the pub. But if you want to recruit new drinkers to the category… oh dear.

Now. Wychwood is under absolutely no obligation to convert lager drinkers if they don’t want to. It’s up to them. But constitutionally, CAMRA does have such an oligation. It spends an awful lot of time and energy trying to recruit new members. So Christ only knows what they were thinking when they decided to allow Whychwood to sponsor the volunteer shirts with the Hobgoblin image and the slogan “Definitely not for lager boys.”

Well done lads, I’m sure there were whoops of delight among the volunteers when you ripped open the boxes and started handing them out. But think about it: if you’re going to get new people interested in real ale, where are they going to come from? They’re lager drinkers who are looking for something more. So they walk in, curious as to what they might find, and the first thing they see is a T-shirt slogan that effectively says, “FUCK OFF! You and your kind are not welcome here.”

It’s the most stupid, ignorant, short-sighted thing I think CAMRA have ever done. As someone who drinks lager, I felt personally insulted. Someone may try to argue that it should be taken as a joke. All I can say is that if I’m a potential new recruit to the cause who is nervous about what to try, I may not get the humour.

To make matters worse, we then had an extraordinary performance from Paula Waters, CAMRA’s chairperson. This was on the trade day, just before the announcement of the champion beers, the point when any press attending the festival were likely to be in earshot. CAMRA should be grateful for the appalling acoustics in the venue.

Waters began, “There have been those in the press who have suggested we make this event more like the American Beer Festival, with smaller glasses for tasting, big brewers involved, and lager as well as beer available.” I nodded – I’m one of the people who suggested all these things in a piece in trade journal the Brewer’s Guardian last November. I was keen to hear what arguments, if any, she would counter these sensible suggestions with – they may not be right for this festival, but to hear why would make for a constructive debate. (And lager IS beer, but let’s not get into that). Waters then gave her response. She grabbed one of the T-shirts, opened it across her chest and yelled, “As long as this festival is run by CAMRA and staffed by volunteers, it IS DEFINITELY NOT FOR LAGERBOYS!”

So there you have it. If you drink lager, like me and ninety five per cent of Britain’s beer drinkers, you can fuck off. If you brew lager, even if it is excellent lager like Cain’s, who had paid CAMRA a big chunk of money to take a prime space at the event, or Budvar, one of the finest pislners in the world, you can fuck off. And most pertinently, if you have any constructive ideas as to how to make this festival even better and more relevant to a greater number of people, you can most assuredly fuck off.

Thanks Paula. Thanks a fucking bundle.