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If you aren’t spending this weekend in a muddy field shouting at a tree, why not?

It’s wassail weekend. We covered Wassails in World’s Best Cider. I also wrote about different wassails for the now-defunct magazine Fire and Knives. Below is one edited piece that’s an amalgam of three of my favourite wassails. Photos by Bill Bradshaw. If you’ve never been to a wassail, now’s the time to start.

A man wearing a
facial disguise, a coat that looks like it’s made out of 1970s wallpaper and a
top hat with flowers and ostrich feathers on it advances towards me with a lit
blowtorch, his eyes gleaming in the firelight. 
There would be no point
trying to run – we’re up to our ankles in sticky mud. We’d be blind outside
this circle of firelight. And we’re in the middle of a field, miles from the
nearest village.
The man with the
blowtorch raises it above my head and lights a torch I’m carrying. Soon there
is a procession of us carrying yellow flames that give surprising illumination
against the night.
Strings of light
bulbs adorn the naked apple trees, turning them silvery and petrified,
We gather around a
large, hot bonfire, a poker protruding from its
embers, and the drizzle loses its spirit-sapping powers completely if you get
close enough to the flames.  Someone
plays a jolly tune on an accordion – and then everyone falls silent.  The Wassail Master of Ceremonies takes the
poker from the fire and plunges it into a wooden pail brimming with cider. The
liquid steams and foams, spewing onto the grass.  The MC carries the pail solemnly towards the
oldest apple tree in the orchard, steam flowing down its sides like a witch’s
Now, the Morris
men carry the queen on their shoulders and deposit her at the base of the
tree.  She takes a pitchfork with a slice
of toast speared on its prongs and dips it into the pail, then raises it into
the tree and teases the toast free from the prongs, leaving it in the branches
of the tree to attract robins, who will in turn attract good spirits to the
tree. The crowd raises a hearty cheer, and scores of flashlights fire, freezing
raindrops in the air like diamonds. 
The Queen’s reward
is a hearty drink from the cider pail, something she accomplishes so
enthusiastically it earns her another cheer. 
She pours the remains around the base of the old apple tree, giving back
the fruits of last year’s harvest to its roots. 
And now the entire crowd is gong batshit-crazy, banging sticks, cheering
and ululating, scaring away the evil spirits from the tree. Five men in flat
caps and neckerchiefs stride forward, raise shotguns and fire two volleys into
the branches, the retorts so loud I feel it in my chest rather than hear
it.  Orange sparks fly, smoke fills the
branches, and the air is thick with the smell of cordite.
And that’s when it
happens.  Reality shifts.
Mythology often
talks about ‘liminal’ places. 
Liminality, from the Latin limen,
or ‘threshold’, basically refers to a transitional state during a rite of
passage. Anywhere from an airport terminal to TV’s Twilight Zone could be described as a liminal place.  Throughout our history we’ve spun tales of
the existence of other worlds parallel to ours own, various heavens and hells
and, especially, the world of faerie. Normally these worlds are entirely separate
from ours and it’s impossible to pass between them at will. But there are
certain places – liminal places –
where the walls between the worlds are thin. 
A little magic seeps through and the edges, the margins of our world,
become infected by it.  Normal rules
bend, and at times don’t apply at all. 
In our search for
liminality, for mental freedom, we’re rediscovering that childlike ability to
simultaneously believe and disbelieve in magic. 
And as the cordite fills the air and the thick smoke hazes the faerie-lit
trees, for a few minutes I genuinely believe – I know – that we have succeeded in driving evil spirits from this
realm, back through the liminal space to the dimension where they belong.
Everyone else
knows it too. Tomorrow we’ll completely accept that the apple harvest is down
to weather patterns and soil, judicious stewarding and farming technology.  But not tonight.
Or maybe it’s all
just a good excuse to get pissed.
As the younger
children start to file out home, happy and tired, the Fallen Apples take the
stage and do a brief soundcheck, West Country style:
Harmonica player
(blasts a note): Z’at sound oroight?
Audience: cheers
Guitar (strums a
chord): Z’at sound oroight?
Audience: cheers
Bass (plays a few
notes): Z’at sound oroight?
Audience: cheers,
and then before the cheers have chance to die down, the band launches into
something so stupidly bluegrass-catchy that there’s a moshpit where families
were standing only seconds before.  Cider
flies through the air in golden arcs. 
The farmyard mud is stamped into submission.
It’s late by the
time they finish their set, but over in the big barn, the Skimmity Hitchers are
just getting going. These are the kings of the genre known as ‘Scrumpy &
Western,’ possibly because they invented it. 
In the hands of these funnier, modern day Wurzels (a band they’ve
supported), My Girl Lollipop becomes My Girl Cider Cup, and Ring of Fire becomes, well:
I drank down a lovely point of cider
It went down, down, down and my smile it
grew wider
And I yearns, yearns, yearns,
For a pint o’ cider
For a pint o’ cider
By the time Monkey Man is somehow impossibly
improved by its mutation into Badger Man,
and a fully-grown man in a badger costume takes centre-stage, the audience has
abandoned its earlier moderation. 
Everyone, myself included, has their own
two-litre carton of Jungle Juice hooked over one thumb.  Plastic glasses long since hurled through the
air, we drink straight from the spout.
As the set nears
its end, the audience reaction, while enthusiastic, sounds strangely incomplete.
Then I work out what it is: people are too drunk to clap.
One of the nice
things about this wassail is that it requires no crowd control. By midnight,
the crowd is simply too wankered to carry on, and everyone makes their way home
happily, haphazardly, with wide, warm grins on their faces.
But that’s not the
best thing about wassailing. The best thing is simply that it’s here, it
happens. Wassail simply sticks up two fingers to the most depressing time of
the year. It says, yes, I know party season is over, but we’re going to have a
party anyway, a really big party, and we’re going to hold it in a farmyard, in
the middle of winter, and it’s going to be really good.
And while I’ll
admit it might be the drink talking, I can think of no more laudable triumph of
the human spirit.

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If you love craft beer, set it free.

1989. Thursday.

We gathered in the hall of residence common room after gobbling down dinner quicker than usual for our weekly sneer at Top of the Pops. What depths would the Stock Aitken and Waterman ‘Hit Factory’ have sunk to this week? Would its bland fare be distinguishable from last week, and every other week? Would there be any wavering from the template of happy synths peddled by the bland mainstream year in year out, lowest common denominator music that offended no one except those with good music taste like us?

Doubtful. We proto-Beavis and Buttheads would just have to make this week different from last week by upping the level of our competitive ‘witticisms’, annoying the rest of the room who didn’t see anything wrong with what they were being spoon-fed.

And then this happened.

The most exciting band on the planet monkey-walked into your living room and said, “Nice, we’ll take it.”

In days when there was no internet or i-Tunes, when pop and rock musicians were never in the tabloids, when all you heard on TV and radio was safe top 40 hits and you had to seek out specific record shops to buy the music you liked and specific clubs to hear it in public, suddenly the Stone Roses were on Top of the Pops because they were in the charts.

It felt like a revolution was happening. I expected the Domestic Bursar to come in and confiscate the TV.

And while we were still reeling from that,  a few minutes later this happened:

Now we were screaming and hollering. Cars were set alight in the street outside. Bros and Go West were strung up from lampposts. Dave Lee Travis was executed with a bullet to the temple while he knelt at the feet of Shaun William Ryder, who looked down and threatened to “Lie down beside yer and fill yer full o’ JUNK.” Or so it seemed for those glorious two and a half minutes as Kirsty MacColl, who everybody loved, played kingmaker, nailing her colours to the baggy mast.

We had won. We had taken over. So what if Fine Young Cannibals were on next? The indie kids had staged the most marvellous coup, and no-one – not even we indie kids ourselves – had seen it coming.

Afterwards, it was puzzling to feel somewhat deflated. Let down. To feel a sense of loss. Since I’d arrived at uni a few years before, wearing black overcoats and breton caps and listening to the Mighty Lemon Drops and the Bodines had been a lifestyle, an identity, a way of stating my opposition to the bland, bourgeois mediocrity, to the people who got drunk at university because that’s what you were supposed to do at nineteen, and then got married and got jobs as accountants after graduation because that’s what you were supposed to do at twenty-two.

So it was confusing, after the dozen or so indie kids at St Andrews Uni swapped our Joy Division overcoats for Stone Roses flares and hoodies, to see all the other kids – corduroy clad, U2-loving students and casual, wedge-cut townies – do the same. We could no longer tell who was in our tribe. And then our tribe didn’t exist any more. We liked music that was in the charts, and lots of other people liked it too. That was surely a bad thing. And yet privately, it felt good.

The music and beer analogy. Works every time.

Just before Christmas, analysts Mintel released their latest report on the UK beer market, and it’s all about craft beer.  I didn’t have chance to write about it at the time, and you were probably too drunk to read it anyway, but it deserves some attention from everyone who thinks craft beer is something to be debated and argued over rather than simply drunk and enjoyed.

Mintel’s research uncovered some interesting stats:

  • One in four British adults has drunk a craft beer at some time in the last six months – that’s around 13 million people.
  • 35% of all beer drinkers believe craft beer is worth paying more for, because they associate it with higher quality.
  • 50% of beer drinkers expect that a craft beer will taste better than other beers.
Our collective failure to agree on a definition of craft beer doesn’t seem to be doing craft beer any harm. But whatever that definition is, we probably can’t hold on to ideas about size and scale of brewer for much longer. 40% of drinkers say they aren’t sure what the term ‘craft beer’ actually means, and 45% of drinkers say they would find craft beers more appealing if they knew more about them, so there is a need for greater clarity. But at the same time, 40% of drinkers also say they would be keen to try a craft-style beer for a large brewer.
This is where we get back to Madchester taking over Top of the Pops, and I get to be a sensible middle-aged man again rather than an over-excitable music snob. 
Bigger brewers are risk-averse and can never hope to have the same flexibility and intuitive approach to brewing that smaller brewers have. But big brewers can provide widespread training, information and education that drinkers are saying they want from craft beer.
Should craft stay small? Is it wrong that it’s going mainstream? I’d be interested to hear from any craft brewers, as opposed to drinkers, who think their potential market should stay small and niche. Much as I loved the Mighty Lemon Drops and the Bodines at the time, they’re probably driving cabs now. Ian Brown is a multi-millionaire.
Alan McLeod has been writing a lot recently about the problem of taking craft beer too seriously, culminating in a new ebook co-authored with Max Bahnson, The Unbearable Nonsense of Craft Beer. And while I fear Max and Alan may be in danger of taking ‘not taking craft beer too seriously’ too seriously, you should definitely give it a read.
We don’t own craft beer any more than ten indie kids in St Andrews owned the Stone Roses. People want good beer, and they think that means craft beer, and I for one think that is the most exciting news I’ve heard in a long time.
But there’s also a message here for the big brewers as they no doubt increase their forays into craft through 2014.
The amount of beer we drink overall is still decreasing. According to Mintel, 31% of beer drinkers claim to be drinking less than they did a year ago, versus just 13% drinking more. People are drinking less but better. 
But better has to mean better. 
There’s a meltdown of old distinctions happening in the beer market: on the one hand, drinkers are increasingly happy to drink beers from brewers they are unfamiliar with – and this extends into lager and nitro-stout. In 2013 we saw many small and regional brewers launch their own “craft” lagers and Guinness clones, because many drinkers no longer need a multi-million pound ad campaign to tell them what to drink. 
On the other hand, drinkers are perfectly happy to try a craft-y beer from a big brewer – so long as it is genuinely better than the mainstream.
As far as the drinker is concerned, big can do small and small can do big – just so long as you are true to what ‘craft’ promises. As Mintel’s beer and cider guy and author of the report Chris Wisson says, 
“Rather than focusing on size, craft should be more of an ethos which stands for high quality and artisan skill, giving the consumer a different drinking experience… as prices of many drinks continue to go up, many drinkers are looking for discernibly higher quality to justify the cost. Focusing on the quality of ingredients such as hops and the brewing process should help brands to convey their superior quality to beer drinkers.”

But that means you actually have to use decent ingredients and processes in the first place, rather than just pretending.

As social media gives the public more of a voice than ever before, any brewer paying lip-service to craft and cynically exploiting it will be called out and ridiculed. With beer choice no longer determined solely by the size of the marketing budget, and more craft beers from smaller brewers on the bar, quality will out and sub-standard beer simply won’t cut it, whoever it’s brewed by.

Any big brewer who ignores craft beer in 2014 (laughably, I’ve heard some still privately dismissing craft beer as an East London fad) is an idiot. Anyone who does craft beer and executes it badly is a fool. And anyone who thinks that craft can and should remain the preserve of small, independent brewers and a tiny band of devoted aficionados is sadly misguided.

No doubt it’s going to be a bumpy ride, and there are bound to be those on all sides who fly in the face of that last paragraph and prove me right. But I think that for anyone with an open mind, 2014 is going to be a great year for beer.

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Think you, or someone you know, is the best drinks producer in Britain?

Food and drink. It’s lovely.
Are you frustrated by how the mainstream media always seems to ignore beer and cider? Are you a wine lover who wishes more people were aware of how good English wine is? Following my post yesterday, do you wish there was more focus on interesting soft drinks? Or are you excited about the imminent boom in microdistilleries?
This year I’m delighted to be once again judging the drinks category in the BBC Radio 4 Food and Farming Awards, along with wine writer Victoria Moore. As the official blurb says, “From pioneering brewers to traditional distillers, wine makers to juice producers. We want to hear about the people using carefully sourced ingredients and skill to produce an outstanding drink. From producers bringing new ideas to the world of drink, to businesses keeping traditions alive, tell us who deserves recognition in 2014.”

In 2012 our three finalists were the Kernel Brewery, Once Upon a Tree cider, and the Kilhoman distillery. We had to sideline some pretty amazing drinks producers to get to that list, and if we could have then split the award three ways we would have – it eventually came down to a very close vote, which Once Upon a Tree won.

Me and Val Warner with last year’s winners. I actually think I may have lost weight since this was taken.
Beer has done really well recently – as well as Kernel coming so close, the award has been won by Bristol Beer Factory and the Wye Valley Brewery in recent years. Last year the showing from wine was very poor, and Victoria wants to change that – as do I. But I also want to make sure that beer and cider do as well as they did last year too. We had for more brewers and cider makers enter than any other drinks category.
The judging is extremely rigorous. The judges from all categories come together to agree with each pair of judge’s shortlist and the eventual winner. This year, that means a producer could be discussed by the likes of Sheila Dillon, Richard Corrigan, Valentine Warner, Charles Campion and Raymond Blanc. It’s great exposure, even if you don’t win. And if you make the final three, you’ll be featured in a Radio 4 programme with me and Victoria.
These awards are for everyone. Anyone can nominate their favourite producer by filling in the entry form on the BBC website. And just to clear up any confusion arising from that wording, producers are welcome to nominate themselves.
NOM-inations (sorry) opened yesterday, with a programme which you can listen to here. Entries close on 27th January, so you have to be quick (but the form is easy and straightforward). The winners will be announced at a ceremony in May, which looks likely to form the centre of a series of food and drink events.
This award transforms the businesses of those who win it. And the more producers that enter, the more we show the rest of the world how vibrant beer and cider (and everything else) are. There are of course other categories if you also know a great market, food producer, farmer etc.
So go on, make my life agony as I try to choose a winner from the very best of British drinks!

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Dry January

This is the strangest time of the year to be doing what I do.

With grim inevitability, we are told that we should all stop drinking alcohol for a month, just to prove we can.

Just as inevitably, those of us who decide to do so are met with sometimes extraordinary hostility by those who don’t want to.

Both sides are now pissing me off.

Any reader of this blog knows where I stand on the cynical creep of neo-prohibitionism. My last blog post is just below this one if anyone has any doubt.

But I try to go dry for January every year, and have done so for years – since long before it became a piece of nonsense to beat people with.

I drink too much. I counsel that we should feel free to drink more than we are told. I rubbish the distortion of data that suggests we’re all drinking ourselves to death. But even by my own more relaxed standards, I drink more than is good for me. I am two stone overweight and am on medication for high blood pressure, and this is related to the amount of alcohol I drink. It’s an occupational hazard, and it’s also more than that. Going dry for January is my way of proving to myself that I still control my relationship with booze. When I do it, I lose weight. I sleep better, and have more energy. When I start drinking again, my tolerance is lower and I drink slower and less frequently. And gradually, through the year it creeps up again, until over Christmas my alcohol consumption is excessive by any standards, and January provides a reset.

When I talk about this, it’s amazing how many people seem to know more about my body and my psychology than I do. The neo-prohibitionists would argue that the above paragraph proves I’m an alcoholic – that if I need to stop drinking for a month, that proves I need to stop drinking altogether. Some idiots even try to say that dry January is dangerous because it encourages people to drink with abandon for the other eleven months of the year – a point of view that garners headlines every year despite having absolutely nothing to back it up.

On the other side, people tell me that detoxes don’t work, implicitly asking me to ignore the evidence of my senses and the bathroom scales. Others seem threatened, like I’m betraying the cause of drinkers somehow. And then there are those who attack January abstainers for ruining the businesses of microbrewers and closing pubs.

This last point is particularly annoying. I appreciate that a campaign suggesting we all abandon pubs for a month might anger people whose livelihoods might be damaged by it. But beer enjoys a cyclical year. In December, pubs were packed. Some drinkers and publicans complain about the Christmas ‘amateur drinkers’ who turn up to their pubs, packing the place out and ordering in annoying fashion as they throw money over the bar. A few weeks later the same people complain that pubs are empty.

Given that pubs know a lot of punters take a breather in January, why not cater for them? Where are the specials on interesting artisanal soft drinks? The promotions on non-alcoholic cocktails? Why not put some detox-friendly dishes on the menu? We get very indignant about the idea that pubs are mere drink shops. We spend all our time saying that they are more than that, that they are important community centres that provide many benefits.  So in January why do we then act as if beer is all they can do?

Just because I’m not drinking for a few weeks doesn’t mean I’ll be going to the pub any less in January. I still want to get out of the house and see friends. But when I do so I’ll most likely be drinking stupidly overpriced lime and soda, having viewed and rejected the range of excessively sugary, crap-filled soft drinks available, and wondering yet again why there isn’t a single dish on the menu that isn’t full of fat, cream or grease.

Dry January, like Christmas and ‘NYE’ before it, is a result of our desire for shared experience. We are social creatures and for the most part we enjoy the knowledge and experience that we are all going through something together. The rise of social media has intensified this sharing. Most of the time that’s good. But it does also create a shared sense of obligation that some of us rebel against. A month ago newspapers were full of articles about What You Must Do To Enjoy The Perfect Christmas, and every one of them had comments below from people complaining that they didn’t want to do Christmas that way, but somehow felt that they were forced to against their will. Why? Now, when Dry January is suggested we either feel we must go along with it as if it’s the law or we get angry and ask ‘Why the hell should I?’

It’s part of the infantilisation of our culture. Being scolded on a regular basis by government, the NHS, and a media that invariably refers to the recommended guidelines on alcohol consumption as limits sits alongside advertising voiceovers that uniformly sound like a parent talking to a toddler, and food packaging and restaurant menus that talk in lower case sans serif fonts about things being yummy and nom.

We buy into this infantilisation. When we nip out for a cheeky scoop, or enjoy food that is tasty but not healthy, we invariably talk about being ‘naughty’, as if we are children breaking the rules. When everyone else breaks the rules with us we feel like we’re getting away with it. When we’re given rules we don’t like and see others conforming, we start behaving like children who have been caught, or stamp our feet and fold our arms and say ‘Don’t want to.’

I say all this because I’m guilty of it, as much as anyone. There is an inner child in me saying “Go on, go for a drink. Because you can. You can get away with it.” It’s not a craving for alcohol per se, more a desire to transgress some rule that is entirely in my own head.

So here’s my New Year’s resolution, which I offer up for anyone else to share: be a grown-up around alcohol, and take responsibility for your own decisions. If you want a drink, have one, and if you don’t, don’t. Going dry for January is my personal way of resetting my relationship with alcohol. If you’re someone who only drinks a couple of days a week you may feel you don’t need to do this. If you’re someone who drinks most days to a point where you’re vaguely concerned it might impact your health, think about what else you might do to counter it. Or don’t, if you don’t want to. If you’d rather go dry for a different month of the year, or try to institute a regimen of at least two alcohol-free days a week, do that instead. If you’re content that your lifestyle is going to be way more fun than anyone else’s but means you’ll probably die of heart disease in your late fifties or early sixties, that’s fine too.

What’s right for me probably isn’t right for you, as we have different histories, hang-ups and habits. But we don’t have to do anything – or refuse to do it – because others are telling us to. I’m going dry for January not because of some sly anti-alcohol publicity campaign, but because it works for me and has done for years. If we were all to simply do what works for ourselves, and not try to tell everyone else what a good or bad idea their course is, it would be a happy new year indeed.

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Why it's OK to drink a lot this Christmas

Ah, Christmas: the time for peace, love, laughter, and stern bollockings about how dangerous our socialising behaviour can be.

Let’s get the essential disclaimers out of the way up front. Firstly, I am aware that some people in Britain suffer from the effects of alcohol abuse, either directly or indirectly. I know that drink problems can kill, and I make no attempt to trivialise that.

Secondly, I know that Christmas is a time when many take it too far and end up vomiting in the street, visiting A&E, or worse. I have no desire to defend these people – they spoil it for the rest of us, both when they’re screeching in pubs or fighting outside, and afterwards when the vast majority of happy, convivial drinkers are demonised for the actions of a childish minority.

My problem is that reports of truly destructive behaviour are invariably accompanied by warnings from medical experts that 25% of us are drinking to hazardous levels. What they tend to omit is that the definition of ‘hazardous’ is anyone who has drunk more than the recommended daily guideline of alcohol consumption, which equates to a pint and a half of beer for men, or one pint or one medium-sized glass of wine for women.

That’s right: the shocking truth of Binge Britain is that one in four of us drinks at least two pints of beer or one large glass of wine on at least one day in any given week.

Doesn’t quite sound so ‘hazardous’ when you put it that way, does it?

That’s why those seeking to persuade us to cut down on our drinking turn to ever more extreme methods to scare us (fact: most of us already are cutting down. New figures released last week show overall alcohol consumption, as well as heavy drinking, have fallen yet again). There’s a deliberate blurring of the yob who drinks a bottle of whisky and trashes the place and the couple who share a bottle of wine over dinner.

Just two weeks ago, the latest horror story was that people in their forties are the latest group that are drinking themselves to death and bankrupting society as they do so. Apparently, the shocking truth is that 20% of all alcohol-related hospital admissions are comprised of people within this age band.

When I first read this, it reminded me a bit of that spoof stat about how we’re all skivers because 40% of all sick days fall on a Monday or Friday.

I honestly didn’t think the figure too high: if you have been abusing alcohol for most of your adult life, you’d expect your forties to be the age when it would start to take its toll (unless you’d rather believe the alternative shock stories about how binge drinkers in their early twenties are swamping hospitals with cases of liver failure). And while health problems increase with age, older people tend to drink less (unless you’d rather believe the alternative shock stories about how the over-65s are a ticking time bomb of alcohol-related woe.)

In any case, 20% didn’t sound particularly high. And by the time I had Googled ‘UK population split by age’ and learned that there is a population spike in this age group (14.6% of us are aged 40-49, compared with 13.6% aged 20-29, 13.1% aged 30-39, 12.2% aged 50-59 and 10.8% aged 60-69) I realised that this supposed shock was a complete non-story. It’s a shame no one in the national press undertook the same due diligence before repeating it (inevitably accompanied by images of people drinking beer, of course).

Alcohol is an addictive and potentially dangerous drug – we know that, because we are told it every day. But it also happens to be intrinsic to our civilization, a constant in our history, both sacrament and everyday treat.

Like fire, alcohol kills, maims and wrecks lives every year, and has done since the Stone Age. But also like fire, alcohol is one of our greatest ever discoveries, something it’s hard to imagine living without, something that has, in general, immeasurably improved the quality of our lives.

We know that fire needs to be treated with respect and caution. We understand completely that if we control it, it’s a boon, but that if we let it get out of control, it can cause devastating damage. That’s why we keep children away from it, and why there are very clear guidelines on how to handle it.

We don’t see people calling for the abolition of fire. We rarely see people blaming fire itself when it destroys. We understand that when it kills, it was either deliberate and criminal human action, a tragic accident, or the result of negligence. We might say that such tragedies show the need for better education around fire or clearer warnings, and of course that’s right. But we don’t hear anyone arguing that a house fire proves we should only be allowed to cook a meal or stay warm once or twice a week.

It’s a sign of our collective sickness and anxiety that anti-alcohol rhetoric peaks at Christmas.

Christmas, like birthdays and weddings, is a time of celebration. Intoxication lowers inhibitions, creates feelings of euphoria, relaxes us and helps us interact with people. We think we, and those around us, are funnier, sexier, and more interesting than when we’re sober. And as a society, we are somehow in the process of convincing ourselves that this is a bad thing.

If alcohol were that bad for us, we probably wouldn’t be here now. Because in the past we drank a hell of a lot more alcohol than we do today.

If it were that bad for us, the other piece of booze related news last week – the latest in a long line of studies that proves yet again that moderate drinkers live longer than teetotallers as well as alcoholics – would never have appeared.

So this Christmas, don’t drink responsibly – not all the time. Christmas is a holiday from our day-to-day responsibilities, and that’s why it exists, as an essential safety valve from our lives.

Don’t drink to black out. Don’t drink till you throw up. Don’t drink to punish yourself or others. That’s the behaviour that suggests you have a problem in life that isn’t drink itself.

But do drink more than two units per day for men or 1.5 units for women. Drink until you feel like singing. Drink until you feel epic and marvellous. Drink until you feel confident and comfortable enough to ask out that person from work on a date. Drink until you feel a hangover the next day, on a day when having a hangover doesn’t matter, and reflect on the yin and yang, on our ability to heighten euphoria to new levels and then take the knocks for it the next day with good grace.

Christ’s first miracle – if you believe that particular superstition – was turning water into wine at the wedding in Canaan. According to the Bible – and I think this is a fairly close translation from the original script – the saviour of mankind announced his presence on Earth by getting people shitfaced and showing them a good time.

So don’t get drunk every day over Christmas. But do get drunk at least once. And if they complain, tell our Puritan overlords that it’s what the Baby Jesus would have wanted.

Merry, merry Christmas.

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Golden Pints 2013

I don’t normally join in this annual beer bloggers’ exercise in navel gazing because I’m too busy and I think I can do something similar but better and used to do my own round-up before they came in. But this year I’m not too busy and, more importantly, I can’t think of anything better, and Zak Avery just did a really wonderful post that has urged me to try my own hand, so let’s see how we get on.

Two things happened for me in 2013: one, I turned 45, moving into the 45-54 demographic. I’m middle bloody aged and that came about far too quickly. Second, I celebrated Man Walks into a Pub, my first book, being in print continuously for ten years. In 2003 I was a fresh young voice in beer writing, younger than pretty much every other writer I met. Now I’m an establishment old fart. That’s how quickly it happens and it’s just not fair.

In keeping with this development, I’m becoming curmudgeonly and going retro. This year the headlong rush of craft beer in London started to get a little wearing.

No you’re not, you’re a hipster chancer who needs to learn how to brew a balanced beer. Remember how Picasso had to learn how to paint properly before he could do all those seemingly random paint splashes and make them work? You need to know how to brew boring brown ale well before you’re qualified to mess around with more diverse stuff. And cloudy, yeasty, alcoholic grapefruit juice became the new boring blond beer in 2013.

No. You really haven’t. Go away, drink a Saison Dupont and think about what you just said.

Well what the fuck do you think you’re doing charging people four or five quid for it?

There were brilliant new craft beers this year of course. But for me 2013 was the year I remembered about Belgian Trappist ales, perfectly balanced, crystal clear best bitters, the original American IPAs, and stopped worrying about whether or not I was keeping up to speed with the latest new opening.

Best UK Cask Beer
How should I know? If I drank all 4000 of them I’d be dead. Because of what I said above, the beer that had the biggest impact on me was Truman’s Runner. It took me back to simpler times when I first got into beer, and anyone who dismisses this style as ‘boring brown beer’ needs to figure out whether they actually understand flavour.

Best UK Keg Beer
Camden Hells. The best lager in the world. I was there when it was judged to be so and rarely have I seen an international group of brewers unite around something so completely.

Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer
Thornbridge Chiron. The once unimpeachable Jaipur has become a little patchy of late. Chiron simply rules – a slam dunk that pulls me up short whenever I’ve tasted it.

Best Overseas Draught Beer
A popular choice in the GPs, Lagunitas IPA. I was delighted to see it appear in craft beer pubs this year. One of the first US IPAs I ever tasted back in ’04, despite the marketing moving on and becoming bolder and more diverse around it, it still kicks ass.

Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer
Rochefort 10. Always.

Best Beer For quiet contemplation
Worthington White Shield still nails it for sitting there and being mindful, always revealing more, always developing.

Best Beer for gabbling with mates and seizing the day
The beer that has evaporated from the glass, pint after pint, while we make plans and put the world to rights, is probably Howling Hops Pale Ale number 2.

Beer I haven’t drunk enough of in 2013
Magic Rock.

Welcome surprise beer style that crept up on us and is likely to be huge next year 
Rye/RyePA/Red ales

Best beer for crying into
The new Fuller’s Imperial Stout. A case of this arrived at my door about ten minutes before the vet who came to put Captain the Celebrity Beer Dog to sleep after ten brilliant years with us. Two bottles of this 10.7% ABV magnificent bruiser gave him his wake.

Best Branding, pump clip or Label
Box Steam’s Brewery’s lovely Evening Star is the only beer I’ve impulsively tweeted a picture of like a giddy fanboy.

Best UK Brewery
Sharps. No really. I’ll never knowingly drink another pint of Doom Bar, but the Connoisseur’s Choice range has been consistently excellent and thought-provoking without being weird for the sake of it. Although I still haven’t yet tried the beer brewed with woodlice. Not weird for the the sake of it at all. 

Adnams were a very close second, making any debates about a supposed distinction between craft brewers and real ale brewers irrelevant.

Best Overseas Brewery
I haven’t visited any overseas breweries this year so on the basis that nothing has come across my radar to change the view I’ve held for years, it’s Brooklyn Brewery.

Best New Brewery Opening 2013
I dunno. I’m going with Wild Beer Co. Yes I know they opened in 2012, but I didn’t do the Golden Pints last year so I can include them this year if I want to.

Pub/Bar of the Year
One’s local is a strange thing. There are lots of pubs we go into regularly, but few to which we give that special distinction. It’s a relationship we change less frequently than marriages or bank accounts, but I changed mine this year. My new local, 25 minutes walk from my house, is the Cock Tavern in Hackney.

Best New Pub/Bar Opening 2013
Like what I said about Wild Beer Co, the Hops and Glory opened in late 2012, but still feels new and exciting to me. 

Beer Festival of the Year
The only one of the new wave of craft beer festivals I managed to get to this year was IndyManBeerCon. I’m glad I made it – craft beer growing up, showing its longevity as well as its imagination and creativity.

Supermarket of the Year

Independent Retailer of the Year
Geerts Drankenhandel in Oostakker on the outskirts of Ghent is the best beer retailer I’ve ever visited. €1 for Saison Dupont? €10 for Deus 750ml? €1.25 for Rochefort 10? I should coco. €318 euros later the car boot was so full the axle was groaning.

Online Retailer of the Year
Haven’t really used any but there are some interesting new ones coming up – Eebria is very new but looks like it could become really interesting – love their approach.

Best Beer Book or Magazine
Pocket Beer Book by Stephen Beaumont and Tim Webb. Because together they’re two of only maybe four or five writers on the planet who could honourably take up the reins that Michael Jackson left. And because it’s the book that told me about Geerts Drankenhandel.

Best Beer Blog or Website
Zak Avery chose Adrian Tierney Jones’ blog for its “non-linear relationship with narrative.” I’ll echo that, with Zak as runner-up for that observation alone.

Best Beer App
Craft Beer London is the only one that seems worth using at the moment.

Simon Johnson Award for Best Beer Twitterer
Simon Bloody Johnson of course! He’d already done enough before his cruelly premature passing in May to walk this one.

Best Brewery Website/Social media
I wish I could say Let There Be Beer, but the execution got off to the worst start imaginable. The intent is sincere, but the execution was botched. They are trying to remedy this now and not giving up, and I’ve been chipping in a bit of advice. Hopefully there’ll be a turnaround next year. But given how rubbish it was in 2013, I think the winner this year goes instead to Brew Dog. I don’t always agree with the beers they brew or the things they say, and inevitably they’re not as fresh as they were with so many people inspired by them now setting up in competition, but James Watt and Co still know how to use social media better than anyone. 

Music and Beer Pairing of the Year
Jimi Hendrix’s take on All Along the Watchtower paired with Chimay Blue. 

Food and Beer Pairing of the Year
Dinner cooked by Tim Anderson at Dukes Brew & Que back in May. Not all of it successful but all of it audacious and interesting. Gave me the most epic food hangover I’ve had this year, and my best celeb namedrop story ever.

Now – time to try that woodlouse beer…

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Pubs do not “further the social wellbeing or social interests of the local community” – says who?

It’s bad form to post two blogs in the same day, especially if they’re about the same topic, especially if you normally struggle to blog once a week, like I do. But a tidbit has just fallen into my lap that I can’t wait to share.

One of the practices for which PubCos are taking a significant amount of stick for is selling pubs off to become shops or flats. Fair enough – perhaps – if the pub has failed and closed and there’s no real call for it any more. But when the people running the pub really want to stay there and continue running it as a pub, and when there is a dedicated bunch of regulars happily spending money there, turfing them out against their will looks a bit mean, to say the least.

The Sir John Barleycorn is thought to be the oldest pub in Hitchin, having served the community for about 150 years. It’s the perfect model of a community boozer, with darts on Monday, a pub quiz on Tuesday, and crib or dominoes on Thursday. It hosts various local sports teams and a steady diet of live bands from the area. It’s currently owned by Punch Taverns.

Following the closure and conversion of other nearby pubs, a group of concerned regulars got together this autumn and applied to have the pub listed as an Asset of Community Value (ACV). This makes it much harder to change the use of the premises, helping preserve it as a pub for a five year period. ACV status was introduced by the 2011 Localism Act, and was brought into effect on 21st September 2012. Since then, around twenty pubs have successfully achieved ACV status.

When the Sir John Barleycorn applied for ACV status, there was an objection. This objection claimed that there was no need for the pub to be protected because there were plenty of other pubs nearby. And anyway, many of the valuable community activities listed in the application – the bands, quizzes and sports teams and so on – didn’t necessarily have to happen in a pub – they could happen in other community venues, such as, er… well, anyway, they didn’t need to happen in pubs. Even though that’s where they normally do.

But out of three objections, point two was perhaps the most vociferous:

“2. The various activities mentioned by the nominee in the application are ancillary to the use of the premises as a public house. They do not therefore comply with the purposes set out in Section 88 (1) of the Localism Act 2011. With regard to Section 88 (2), the current use of the premises as a public house i.e. a place where alcohol is consumed and sold, does not itself further the social wellbeing or social interests of the local community and therefore is not land of community value.” 
[my emphasis]

It’s sad but not entirely surprising to see such an objection. We do after all live in an age of neo-prohibitionism, where various groups are only too happy to see the decline of the pub, and where alternative means of buying alcohol for home consumption are proliferating.

So who was it who objected to the attempt to preserve a fine old pub in its traditional use? Who believes so strongly that pubs do not further the social wellbeing or social interests of the community? Alcohol Concern? A local church group or nearby school? A big supermarket chain?


These are the words of Punch Taverns, the owners of the Sir John Barleycorn. A company that owns over 4,300 pubs believes those pubs are not good for local communities.

On its website, Punch Taverns says:

“At its core the Community Pub should always provide a relaxed and friendly atmosphere for customers living in the neighbourhood. To excel, Community Pubs need to be at the hub of their neighbourhood, a focal point for locals. Supporting the many and varied interest groups of the community; darts, pool, fund raising, local schools, business networking, whatever they may be, is key.”

And yet here they are, vociferously protesting against one of their own pubs which is doing exactly that, actively opposing attempts to keep one of their oldest pubs trading as a pub.

Happily, the local council disagreed with the UK’s second-largest pub landlord, and decided that pubs such as the Sir John Barleycorn do in fact perform an important social function in the community. They awarded the pub its community asset status.

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Enterprise Inns: empowering publicans with cutting edge market information

A brief footnote to the sad story of one of my favourite locals, the Alma on Newington Green.

The Alma is now being offered up as a new tenancy, with applications closing this week. I was impressed by the level of detail on the website for prospective tenants – every aspect a curious publican might want to know about is covered. There’s even a guide to local competition – clearly a key factor in how the business might perform. So it’s great to see the website giving a run-down on what else is in the area so interested parties can accurately assess the opportunity:

Screen grab from Enterprise’s website about the Alma tenancy

There’s just one problem with this. No, actually, there are quite a few:

  • In 2011, the Nobody Inn was renamed the Clarendon. In 2012 it has a massive refit, substantially changing its offering, and was renamed the Dissenting Academy.
  • Bastille Brasserie closed down at least three years ago and is being converted to flats.
  • There’s no such pub as the Crafty Fox in the area. They might mean the Snooty Fox. But you can’t be too hard on them for getting the name of the pub wrong; it’s not as if they own it or anything. Oh, hang on – yes they do.
  • There’s no mention of the Hops & Glory (formerly the George Orwell) or the Leconfield (formerly the Oak Bar) – two craft beer pubs that offer significant competition to the Alma, each less than five minutes walk away. But you can’t be too hard on them for not knowing these pubs exist; it’s not as if they own them or anything. Oh, hang on – yes they do own the Leconfield. 
It’s great to see Enterprise’s local area manager having such a great grasp on the area he is paid to look after.

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Another long post about craft beer.


I did a pub industry conference the other week where I asserted that 2013 will be remembered as the year craft beer went mainstream.
I based this on everything from stats (37% of adults are aware of craft beer; 40% of pubs would like to stock a craft beer, the word ‘craft’, when applied to beer, stands for quality, flavour, and a beer that’s worth paying more for) to personal experience (every major global brewer, or one of their agencies, has approached me to have a chat about craft beer and whether they should be doing something about it) to anecdotal (more of my non-beer friends know their hops and ask to be guided to some interesting craft beers).

Most entertainingly, Hollywood has made a craft beer RomCom, out in the UK any day now, which from the trailer doesn’t look entirely shit, and seems to capture an appropriately indie aesthetic for craft beer.
In my speech I used the analogy – as I always do – of music. This particularly instance was inspired by a conversation I had with Richard King, author of the definitive history of indie music, in which he told me that you could look at blogs discussing the definition and direction of craft beer, substitute the phrase ‘craft beer’ for ‘indie music’, and ten years ago EXACTLY THE SAME blogs were being written, the same arguments, the same factions. 
Of course since then indie music has all but died. The process that began with Oasis breaking through, becoming chart-toppers, tabloid front page regulars, and playing to a third of a million people at Knebworth, ended with the majors cashing in, and indie becoming a debased, meaningless term, divorced from its roots, and applied to any band that had a noticeable amount of hops – sorry, guitars – in it. 
So will the same thing inevitably happen to craft beer? Well, some people think so. I personally think it’s not about the size of the brewery, or its ownership, but the intent of the people who will inevitably jump the bandwagon. Do they want to help craft beer grow while retaining its integrity, to provide a business that has long term profitability and sustainability? Or do they want to cash in and make a quick buck from this trend while keeping an eye out for the next one that will come after it? 
A clear example of the latter is there for anyone travelling through Paddington or Waterloo stations. 
Last year, The Beer House launched in both locations, and there are surely more to follow. The Beer House is owned by SSP, the same company that owns all the other retail franchises on UK train station platforms. If you have ever visited an Upper Crust or a Pumpkin, I’m guessing that sentence has caused chilled dread to start creeping down your spine.

The launch press release says, “This brand was developed to capitalise on the growing trend in the market of consumers looking for something interesting and different as the craft beer movement continues to gain momentum.”

You can just feel the passion for beer bursting from the page can’t you?
The Beer House does not have a website.  There’s a Twitter account that posts scheduled broadcasts of the kind of ‘Hey, what’s everyone doing for the weekend?’ type tweets you get from big corporates and rarely, if ever, talks about beer. It doesn’t do tap takeovers or meet the brewer events. It boasts of ‘over fifty’ craft beers, and then releases a publicity shot with two of the world’s biggest mainstream lager brands in the foreground:

Anyone can ask James Clay to supply them a bunch of interesting beers and stick the word ‘craft’ everywhere on chalk boards. And someone just did. 
Hopefully such places will die out when it becomes apparent to them that they cannot attract people who actually care about beer, or flavour, or integrity, and they realise they’re selling more Heineken than anything else, and they close or rebrand. Hopefully.
So should the major labels of brewing be allowed anywhere near craft beer at all? Are they destined to be rubbish, by definition, if they do? 
I’ve been hugely impressed over the last year or two with craft beer offerings from brewers such as Thwaites and Brain’s. Many of their beers are as good as any from a typical micro – in some cases better, as these are breweries with technical expertise, laboratory facilities and so on. They may not push the boundaries as much as a Brew Dog or a Wild Beer Co, but craft beer doesn’t always have to push the boundaries. (Indie label Creation Records may have broken new ground with the likes of the Jesus and Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine, but their biggest ever band simply copied the Beatles, and were no less exciting for that – at least at first.)
If a large UK regional brewery is making good, interesting, flavourful beer, then any debate as to whether it is ‘craft’ or not is political rather than being about the beer itself. So what are we to make of Greene King’s foray into craft?
Last week I went to the opening of the brand-new £750,000 St Edmunds Brewery. “Greene King’s long tradition of crafting quality ales enters an exciting new phase as the company throws the doors open on its new innovation brewhouse,” says the press release. They are careful not to call themselves a craft brewer, but have unashamedly launched a new range of what they call craft beers.
From an objective point of view, there was good and bad on display. But it definitely felt as though the intent was genuine. 
Among the bad is Noble Craft Lager. While it is brewed with Tettnang hops (a lager hop) and lager malt, it is fermented with Greene King’s usual ale yeast and is not lagered (stored for maturation) for any significant period, so according to either of the two separate but often interrelated definitions of lager, it’s not a lager at all, but a pale ale that’s a bit sweetish for my palate. I’m sure that sweetness (and the masquerade as a lager) will mean it does very well. But it’s cheeky to call it a lager – and taking the piss to call it a craft lager. 
I’m also a bit dubious about repackaging established Greene King beers as part of this new craft range. Strong Suffolk Ale is one of my favourite Greene King beers, and if it were a new brew I wouldn’t have thought it unusual that it’s here. St Edmunds Golden Ale, launched a few years ago, belongs in the mainstream GK range by any defintion. Simply rebadging these sends out the wrong message, making the whole thing feel a bit too marketing-led (and one of the defining characteristics of craft beer is that it is led by brewers, not marketers, even though the latter have an important role to play).
On positive side, it was a joy to be introduced to beers such as the new Suffolk Porter, Twisted Thistle IPA and St Edmunds Anniversary Ale. Yardbird is a solid pale ale in the style of Camden or Meantime Pale. And while I wasn’t quite convinced by the new Hop Monster IPA – yes, people, Greene King now makes a ‘proper’ IPA! – many of my press colleagues really enjoyed it. I’d be perfectly happy to drink any of these beers, and to refer to them as craft beers while doing so.
After the tasting, we did get the obligatory marketing spiel – “The Greene King of the last few years is going to look very different in the future” – and surprisingly, for me this was just about the most valuable part of the day. Because I think Greene King are helping us get to a place where craft beer UK can mature properly.
I love microbrewers because they act on instinct and intuition. I like larger regional brewers because they can afford to do market research, and when it’s done well, and reveals new insights that can be shared, it’s incredibly valuable.
When Greene King went out to talk to craft beer drinkers they found two groups: a more mainstream group of ‘beer explorers’, who have their favourite beers but like to try new ones, and a generally younger, more specialist group who buy into the core craft aesthetic. As the number of craft brewers grows, and the number of craft beer bars grows, the number of people who drink craft beer is growing. That’s why nearly half of all pub landlords want to stock at least one craft beer. And as it grows, what the broad market thinks of as ‘craft’ is taking a new shape:
This chart (presented, refreshingly, without PowerPoint) is hugely important, as I think it unlocks the headache many British craft beer enthusiasts have been suffering from.
What confuses us about craft beer in the UK is familiarity.
We take our lead on craft beer from America, believing that US craft beer styles, and the flavours they represent, are the ones that matter. We frame any attempt to define craft beer in relation to the American definition. But we, and the Germans and Belgians, have something the American craft movement doesn’t – an unbroken history of interesting, flavourful, small-scale brewing. You could argue – because it’s true – that we have always had craft brewing, long before the Americans coined the phrase in its current context.
There was no discernible craft beer in America before the current microbrewery boom began. Craft in America reacted against the total lack of interesting beer. Every craft brewer in America is a relatively recent arrival. So if we take our cues from America, craft beer is all about novelty. But this is circumstantial rather than intrinsic – the word ‘novelty’ does not appear in the US definition of craft beer.

But the word ‘traditional’ does.
We have craft brewers that are hundreds of years old. There is no novelty there, and if we think novelty is important, then these brewers don’t feel to us like craft brewers. What GK’s market research shows (and I have seen other pieces of research that arrive at exactly the same point, albeit with slightly different labelling) is that the broader mass of people now getting into craft believe there are two types of craft beer – traditional, which includes pretty much any real ale, and speciality – which could be Belgian speciality, German wheat beer, America IPA or the next thing Evin O’ Riordain dreams up.
And that broad mass of people is right. If a brewer in Portland, Oregon were to set up shop tomorrow brewing exactly the same beers Greene King have been brewing for years, and grew to be exactly the same size as Greene King is now, no one would have any hesitation in calling them a craft brewer. You might think some of those beers are bland, but I’ve tasted bland from young micros too. Worse, I’ve tasted beers that are challenging for the sake of being challenging, and beers that exhibit a lack of brewing skill, but apparently these are still craft beers.
You might think Greene King are too big to be a craft brewer. Sure, the facsimile in Portland, Oregon would be a tiny drop in the US market, but you know what? GK’s share of the UK market too, big as they might seem close up, is relatively tiny. If you’re trying to be objective about craft beer, as opposed to trying to find a definition that includes the beers you like and excludes the beers you don’t, then Greene King – and Marston’s, and Fuller’s, and Wells and Youngs – are craft brewers. But they are traditional (or familiar) craft rather than speciality (or novel, or experimental) craft. And that might be a helpful distinction to make.
When the Publican’s Morning Advertiser tweeted the story about me saying craft has gone mainstream, two responses on Twitter struck me. One said that because the likes of Brooklyn Lager and Goose Island IPA were now relatively easy to find in pubs belonging to the big PubCos, they could no longer possibly be considered craft. The other effectively said that craft couldn’t be considered mainstream because the big PubCos don’t allow their licensees to sell craft beer brands. At least one of these statements has to be wrong.
There’s still confusion and disagreement about what is and isn’t craft, and there always will be. There will always be good and bad craft beer made by microbrewers, and increasingly there will be good and bland craft beer made by regional brewers. But I don’t think the regionals are going to destroy craft beer by their intervention. They will help it grow and mature, which it needs to do, otherwise it will become a fad and recede.
Rooney Anand is not Simon Cowell. Importantly, unlike crafty brands such as Shocktop in the US, Greene King, Brain’s and Thwaite’s make no secret that they are the bigger, more familiar brands behind these new craft ranges. If you want to keep it real and avoid beer from any brewer over a certain size, that’s your call, and the brewer makes it easy for you to do so. But occasionally, you’ll be missing something special.
So long as bigger brewers remember that craft is about brewing before marketing, about flavour before packaging, about integrity and honesty before segmentation and exploitation, there is no reason I can see why they can’t make ‘craft’ beer. In and of itself, this does not represent a dilution of the meaning of the term. They may occasionally need to be reminded of the this (as I have done here in the case of Noble Pale Ale) but on balance I believe the entry of brewers like Greene King to the craft sphere is a good thing.

I hope I’m not proved wrong.