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Beer and Curry – even better together than you might think

How is that possible? I hear you ask. Surely this is already strawberries and cream, cheese and pickle, milk and cookies – the ultimate combination for the lad about town?

Well, think how good it goes together on a basic level – yer average high street after-hours curry house, a nice, saucy, spicy madras or balti with several pints of crisp, cool lager. And then, be honest – you know that’s not as good as curry gets. Anyone who has Indian roots, family or friends knows that what we get when the pubs are shut bears only a faint similarity to traditional Indian food. And you also know that while that lovely, cold pint of imitation-pilsner might hit the spot, and while it might represent the reality of nine out of ten pints of beer drunk around the world, it only represents a tiny sliver on the wheel of beer flavours that are out there. Just think what matching really good Indian food and really good beer could be like…
Today I finally cashed in my birthday present from last year – a half-day curry cookery course with Renuka Patel, who runs Ren’s Kitchen, where you learn how to cook Indian food, Indian style. Ren is full-on, totally passionate about what she does and will not let you out of the door until she’s sure you’re as keen and enthusiastic as she is. You spend a few hours cooking a menu that’s based totally on your likes and preferences, and leave laden with dishes to wow your expectant other-half or mates when you get home. Until today I always wanted to amke dishes that tasted as good as they do in a curry restaurant. Now I know how to make them taste better. If you fancy yourself as a curry maestro, you need to go on this course. However good you think you are, you’re not as good as you will be when you’ve finished.
And I’m not just saying that because we had a great conversation about beer and curry matching, and may be doing some work together in this area in the future. I’ve already done some work on this as part of a team at the Bombay Brasserie restaurant, who are introducing a beer list, and have been on UKTV’s much-missed Great Food Live talking about the same subject.
And it’s just fantastic.
Curry is not just curry – decent dishes don’t just work on a scale of heat; spices combine to create a myriad of complex, layered flavours that will constantly twist and turn and confound your taste buds. And the sheer variety of beer styles and flavours means the capacity for experimentation is endless, with the chance of finding something extraordinary only ever a sip away.
One unique aspect of beer and curry matching is the simple beauty of the fact that even your bog-standard pint of Carslberg or bottle of Cobra fits the bill. Beer is almost always served cool (not necessarily chilled) and the carbonation means it’s always going to refresh and revive your palate. With this as your baseline, the chances of something really not going are virtually nil. And you can build on this baseline by looking for flavour marriages and contrasts that change and enhance the flavour of the curry, the beer or both. The links two paras up give some indication of what’s possible.
And today, as I was making a mess of cooking my own chapattis and getting a scolding for not concentrating, we hit upon another very powerful reason why these two are made for each other.
What I’ve always loved about beer is that it is the most sociable drink in the world. All alcohol acts as a social lubricant, but beer is a leveller far more than any other; a democratic drink, both wherever you go around the world, and whenever you look at it in history. All the rituals around beer, all the baggage that goes with it, are designed to enhance sociability and sharing.
And Indian food is exactly the same – it’s arose out of the idea of huge family meals. It’s accessible and unpretentious. We don’t just go to curry retaurants after a few beers because they’re the only ones open – it’s also about the easygoing atmosphere, and the nature of the food itself – big dishes in the middle of the table, everyone sharing poppadums and tearing off chunks of naan, passing round, laughing and talking. I’d bet a year’s earnings that curry restaurants are noisier than any other culinary establisment, and rightly so.
And with that, I’m off to heat up my spicy lamb kebabs and try them with a Zatec pilsner; my gorgeous chicken with a Grolsch Weizen wheat beer, looking for a marriage with the heady, intense aromatics of both; and I might chuck in an IPA with the vegetable dish just because – well, you’d be stupid not to really.

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Portland – nice beach, wouldn’t wanna live there

“Portland has a pub on every corner, but many are ‘locals only'”.

“There are several pubs in Fortuneswell, but none that you’d really want to take anybody in to impress them. Many of them are notoriously rough places, with histories of violence.”
When we go away somewhere, I often get frustrated with the amount of research Liz does beforehand. Surely there can’t be that much that needs looking at? And then, I found the above comments about pubs in Fortuneswell on the island of Portland, at the end of Chesil Beach – after spending a week there. Ah well, at least there weren’t too many distractions from the writing, which is why I was down there. Days were profitably spent pulling historical notes together, while Captain stared intently at me from the sofa.
Captain pretending to be Princess Diana in the classic shoot by Mario Testino.

I did go to one pub late one afternoon, and I wanted to share the story because I think, while it’s a story about one pub, it’s also a story about pubs in general.

This pub isn’t violent or threatening, but it’s definitely a local’s pub. The barmaid panics when I order a pint of Bombardier, pointing to the two hand pumps on the bar and saying, “What, one of these ones?” before opening the door to the back room to see if there’s anyone else to help her. The half-hearted way she does this reveals that she knows there’s no-one there, but she doesn’t know what else to do. It’s her first day, and with general encouragement from her friends at the bar, and a bit from me, she chooses a glass.

“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.

Everyone else seems to prefer to stay inside. I wonder if this is because of the rather large dog currently standing on one of the tables, owning the entire space, barking at an unseen enemy over the fence. As I sit down the dog appraises me critically, rearing up on its hind legs to give me a good sniff. Looking a little closer, the only loose objects in the beer garden are distinctly doggy. In fact this is not a beer garden but a boneyard, a monster’s lair from a fantasy film.

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?”


“What about?”

“This 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?”

“Well, yes.”

“That’s my favourite, typing.”

“Is it? That’s good.”

“You have very neat handwriting.”

“Thank you.”

“I like your phone.”

“Thank you.”

“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.

A picture of some pub regulars
At this point the dog gets over-excited with the young, four year-old girl and starts playing a bit rough. I grab the dog’s collar and hold it off the girl while she curls up into a ball, sobbing. The screams of the kids attract the adults, and a bloke comes out, socks the dog on the jaw and takes it inside.

“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.

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“The very last thing before I go…”*

Yahoo news story today:

The creators of the online phenomenon “Lonelygirl15” have joined forces with social networking site Bebo to create a British spin-off story that will use brands to help define the characters. The organisers say the project will give advertisers the chance to pitch their products such as clothing or mobile phones at a younger audience who have moved in recent years from traditional media to the Internet.

I’ve often wanted to say this, and a blog is a good start in being able to do so: can I just apologise, on behalf of the advertising industry, for the fucking bullshit that we create for no other purpose than to instil the brands that we work for in peoples’ minds?

Why an apology? Because each time we succeed in planting a brand there, we pollute and degrade your intellect that little bit further.

I think the most frightening thing about the above press release is that the people who wrote it (yeah, “people” -trust me, this was agreed by committee) have absolutely no moral dilemma whatsoever with creating a character that vulnerable teenagers identify with and believe is real, and then using that character as yet another medium to sell meaningless shit that nobody needs – because there aren’t enough media around already to do that with, right?

Lonelygirl15” started life as a series of video diaries posted on YouTube by a 15 year-old girl, talking about her life and the angst she faced. She caught the imaginations of teenage girls across the planet, who saw these posts as a voice they did not have – a real person, speaking their thoughts, when until that point they felt like they were alone.

So when it turned out that the whole thing was fake – “Lonelygirl” was a 21-year-old actress, employed by a couple of twats trying to make their name and fortune – many of “her” followers felt a genuine sense of bereavement – a friend had been revealed as an artificial construct.

Does that remind you of – ooh, I dunno – the horror stories we hear about paedophiles grooming kids in chat rooms, pretending to be 13 year old girls and then turning out to be 40 year-old men?

And then, when the plot is revealed, and YouTube is suddenly deluged with videos from REAL girls talking to their webcams about how hurt, betrayed and deceived they feel (even if you find them insufferable, you have to concede they do really feel this way), how do the perpetrators respond? Do they apologise for the hurt they’ve caused thousands of vulnerable kids? Course not – they say, “Cool! How can we sell this to the advertisers who already have a stranglehold on these peoples’ minds?”

As my sense of disgust with advertising grows (like smokers who become the most vehement anti-smokers, or racists who instantly switch to the Anti-Nazi League and go from beating up “pakis” to beating up the people who use that offensive term) I find this intolerable.

People ask me how I can say this and still be happy promoting beer drinking as a good thing – sniffing for hypocrisy.

But I believe beer drinking is a good thing – statistics show that for the vast, vast majority of people who drink beer, it relaxes them and aids social interaction – and that’s something we need more than ever. When you’re in a pub, you’re not in the shops. In the pub you talk to people, often people you don’t know. You make friends. You put the word to rights. The whole ambience is designed to make you feel relaxed, at home, content.

In shops you’re alone, insecure, competitive.

That’s why the state that loves to turn us into good consumers would rather have us in shops than pubs. You’re not much use to the economy if you’re happy propping up a bar stool, spending £2.50 an hour for a decent pint, when you could be out buying Product.

With this new development, the guys behind LonelyGirl reveal their game plan. They don’t want to fuck children; they just want to harness their purchasing power. They’re not paedophiles. But isn’t it interesting that they’re using exactly the same techniques paedophiles use? When nonces do it, we condemn it unreservedly because it pollutes and deceives young minds. When someone does it in order to sell brands, we hail it as cutting edge marketing.

Does anyone else feel sick or is it just me?

*Lyric from arguably the best Cure song ever

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I don’t think they have Wi-Fi here…

… so at the end of my first proper week’s blogging, I’m going to have to have a week off.

This is Chesil Beach, Dorset, and I’m going here to spend a week in splendid isolation working on my as-yet-unnamed new book. I’ll be reading about life in India in the 1830s, the roasting of pale malt, the brewing heyday of Burton-on-Trent and conditions aboard tall ships in the mid-Atlantic, and trying to fashion it all into a witty yet informative compelling narrative that you – yes, you – will hopefully want to rush out and buy some time in 2008.

Beer will be drunk. Peter Matthias’ A History of the Brewing Industry 1700-1830 will be fallen asleep on. The dog…


will be taken for frequent walks, during which I hope to stumble not only on the beach’s 18 million pebbles, but also on profound insights into the human condition – perhaps even some that still sound profound when I sober up the following morning.

See you in June…

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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…