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This is a beer blog. Shall we talk about some beers?

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:

Kasteel Cru

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.


Zatec

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.

Grolsch Weizen

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.

Palm

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.

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Hello Wales!

The face of Welsh beer drinking – if you type ‘Welsh Beer’ into Google picture search, that is.

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?

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I hope you won’t think of me as a vulgar, shameless self-publicist but LOOK AT THIS!!!!

Have you ever seen a better Father’s Day present IN YOUR LIFE?!

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…

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Cider – the end of the moment

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).

In the same way, many a pisshead starts his drinking career as he ends it – supping extra-strong cider from a big plastic bottle, that he’s got someone else to buy him, because he can’t get served in pubs.

When I was a teenager cider was what you got the older boys to buy you from the off-licence. As soon as you could get served in pubs you left it behind, a symbol of your virginal, young-shaving years, and switched to adult drinks such as, er, lager and lime, or if you grew up in the south of England, “lager top”. In the marketing end of the beer business we use many a hideous phrase to navigate the world of pubs, and a universal one is the “bar call” – it’s a shout, and you’re saying something about yourself when you’re calling for a particular drink. “Call” for a “lager top”, and the message you’re sending about yourself is “I’m desperate to prove my mature masculinity, but I can’t let go of my mother’s apron strings. I want to drink beer in front of my “mates”, otherwise they’ll question my sexuality, but it tastes horrid, so I’d like some lemonade in mine”. But I digress.

If you’re about 27 or under and you grew up in the UK, you didn’t follow the path I outlined above – the drink you got someone else to buy you from the supermarket wasn’t cider; it was Hooch, or Bacardi Breezer, or Two Dogs, or WKD, or Smirnoff Ice. Even sweeter – even more like the drinks you had as a child. And then you could circumvent beer altogether and go straight on to hard spirits. This is why the UK currently has a drink problem – but that’s another story.

What’s important here is that cider wasn’t naff in the mid-90s to mid-00s – it was beyond naff, it was totally invisible. So now, as the alcopop generation matures, it doesn’t have the negative baggage my generation did – cider is a clean slate.

So I loved it when Magner’s came in and introduced the pint bottle with a pint glass full of ice. It was immediately attractive to beer drinkers, especially those who had grown up with the cinema chain/McDonald’s buckets of iced Coca Cola. Ritual is vital in drinking, and here was one that didn’t necessarily need a branded glass to make it work – just a pint glass. All the other brands who’d been languishing in the moribund English cider market for years immediately copied Magner’s in an attempt to negate its advantage. And a general growth of interest in cider lead to a ‘halo effect’ – craft-brewed ciders, such as the wonderful New Forest Cider, suddenly started to get noticed too. Even if you’re a lifelong drinker of quality ciders who hates the taste of Magner’s, you have to admit that this is a good thing for anyone who likes cider. Except, no, hang on, some elements within the Campaign for Real Ale condemned it, unable to compromise for one moment and accept that even if they didn’t like Magner’s, the brand was drawing more people to “real”cider than if it hadn’t been there. But then, those people have no concept of what the twenty-first century is.
But again, I digress. Love it or loathe it, Magner’s has been the mid-noughties success story in the drinks business.
But it’s going to peak before September 07, and enter a decline as steep as its rise.
Why?
It’s all about the ice. Magner’s relies on bar staff chucking in an awful lot of ice with every bottle they sell. The ice is why people buy it – you can’t put ice in beer, that would be horrid – but you can in cider. Get everyone in the bar drinking Magner’s instead of lager, and suddenly your ice requirement increases a hundredfold. And you may well have cocktails, G&Ts etc. that need ice and have a far higher margin, so you hold some ice back for them. Either way, sooner or later someone orders a Magner’s and they don’t get that pint glass full of ice. And then they start wondering why they’re paying a premium, not to mention why it doesn’t taste as nice. Their pint doesn’t look like it does on the adverts. They feel cheated.
The higher the demand, the more likely this point will be reached – and demand will be huge this summer.
I’ve already seen it happen, and in decent pubs too – the kind of pub that always makes sure to serve you the right beer in the right branded glass. Two guys in the only vaguely middle-class pub in Portland (my writing haunt last week) picked up a chess set from the bar, ordered their pints of Magner’s, had them served with no ice… and switched to Guinness for the rest of the evening, before their ciders were even finished.
Pubs can’t produce enough ice to keep pace with the demand for Magner’s. It’s a victim of its success. This is the year the bubble bursts.

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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?”

“Yes”

“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.

“Yes.”

“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…

Captain

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