I don’t really do Golden Pints. But here are some reflections on the year that just sped past without anyone noticing while we were all gazing at our smartphones. First there’s a personal look back at what 2017 meant to me, followed by a transcript of a speech I gave at the annual Beer Writers’ Dinner on 29th November, which touches on some broader themes. It’s a bit long overall, so you might just want to read one part or the other, but if you’ve got this far, you’re probably feeling bored and it should fill a few minutes before you hit the pub again.
My weight-limit-busting haul from the Hill Farmstead brewery, Vermont, October.
The personal bit
I feel increasingly guilty that, as the rest of the world goes to shit, with all the best people dying, and hatred, intolerance and wilful ignorance given free rein, I’m doing OK, thanks! 2016 was the worst year I could remember in world terms but was great for me professionally, and 2017 has been a similar follow-up. My year has been dominated by books: the paperback release of 2016’s The Apple Orchard, the hardback release of Miracle Brew (my first straightforward beer book since 2009), extensive touring in the UK and North America to support that book, and the research and writing of my follow-up to The Apple Orchard, my ninth, as-yet-untitled book, now overdue, and the project that will be claiming every waking minute of January 2018. The Apple Orchard was shortlisted for many awards but didn’t quite win any, whereas The Pub: A Cultural Institution, also released in 2016, was named Fortnum & Mason Drinks Book of the Year. Reader, we partied.
(Along with some of the other winners from last year I’m judging these awards this year. Find out more and enter your work here.)
I also joined the editorial line-up of of Original Gravity magazine and had great fun helping shape the direction of the UK’s only independent beer magazine. Exciting times ahead on that. We ran the Beer and Cider Marketing Awards for the third time (first time with cider included), for which I chaired the judging, as I did for this year’s Guild of Beer Writers Awards after being named Beer Writer of the Year in 2016. I was delighted that Adrian Tierney-Jones won. (I was also delighted that, with Adrian being a friend, I didn’t express my preference until every other member of the judging panel had had their say, and they all said ‘Adrian’.)
Between all that I managed to fit in quite a few trips to breweries. A few days in Belgium in March included tours and chats with Rodenbach and new Flemish brewery Verzet.
The massive barrel-ageing hall at Rodenbach, producing the sharp, tangy beer Michael Jackson once called ‘the most refreshing beer in the world’.
… and the more modest barrel ageing room at Verdett, where each barrel is named after one of the brewers’ favourite rock stars.
In June a group of us did a whirlwind tour around Bristol, organised by people who were keen to convince us that the city was one of the most exciting beer destinations in. the UK. They succeeded in their task.
The illustrations on Bristol brewer Lost & Grounded’s beers all fit together into one big picture and magical set of characters. It’s clever, warm, funny, and strangely moving. Oh, and the beer inside is pretty amazing too.
In July I was invited back to speak at Beer Boot Camp in Johannesburg and Cape Town. The brewing scene there is developing at a ferocious rate. It’s madly exciting. And within seconds of arriving at their beautiful brewery, the Aegir Project became one of my favourite breweries in the world.
Wonderful, imaginative beers brewed and drunk in a location you’ll never want to leave.
October saw my North American tour, during which I got to visit Hill Farmstead, one of the most interesting and talked about breweries in the world. I found a balance in my views on New England IPA, possibly the most divisive topic I’ve seen in my time as a beer writer. (Apart from cask breathers. And the definition of craft beer. And brewery buy-outs. And a whole bunch of other stuff.)
Hill Farmstead – the most talked about brewery in the world? When we were there, people were queuing up for growler refills two hours before the doors were due too open. And it’s a two-hour drive from pretty much anywhere else.
The breweries that have impressed me most this year are Wiper & True, especially for their English saison; Lost & Grounded for their creativity, rigour and flawless Belgian Tripel; Verzet, for their overall vision and their Flemish brown; and Siren, for consistently combining experimentation with class to create beers I’m excited to drink. There have been many more doing great stuff too, but that’s my top four.
I’ve done scores of events and met loads of brilliant people. The highlight has to be presenting my Beer and Music Matching show to over a thousand people at the Green Man Festival in August. I still regularly do events where only three people turn up. That keeps you humble. But this one was at the other end of a very wide scale.
Thank You, Green Man.
Pub-wise, I was lucky enough to have Gracelands – a small pub company that runs some of the best beer pubs in London, including there King’s Arms in Bethnal Green – open a new site, The Axe, just five minutes walk from my house. The effect on my bank balance and liver has been alarming, but not only do they get hold of really good beers, they also curate them really well – the right balance is always on at the right time – and while they’re expensive, they don’t overcharge. If you’re ever in Stoke Newington, it’s unmissable.
The year ended with Miracle Brew receiving the best review I’ve ever been given, by no lesser august publication than the New York Times. That’s one to keep me going whenever the self-doubt kicks in – which is often. The same day the review appeared, I was on the Christmas edition of BBC Radio 4’s Food Programme, providing festive drinks for a dinner hosted by Sheila Dillon and cooked by and eaten with guests including Giorgio Locatelli, Yotam Ottolenghi and Angela Hartnett.
Merry foodie Christmas!
I have no idea how I got to be in a position where things like this happen to me. But I do know none of it would happen if people didn’t read what I write, or didn’t like it when they did. I know I don’t please everyone with what I do, and I’m absolutely fine with that. But if you do take some enjoyment from or interest in my writing, thank you so much for your continued patronage. If a particular idea or passage of writing, a recommendation of a beer or cider or pub, or a pairing of a beer with a particular dish or tune gives you pleasure, then I’m doing something worthwhile, no matter how small.
The review/reflection bit
It’s been a tumultuous, dramatic, fascinating year in beer. I did a short intro speech before I presented the awards at the annual Beer Writer’s Dinner on 29th November, in which I commented on some aspects of it, with a particular focus on where beer writing is going. A few people asked if they could get a copy of the speech, so here’s an edited version.
What a year it’s been! Another year of dramatic developments in beer with so much to write about.
People say it can’t carry on, but we’ve had yet another year of declining numbers of pubs, declining beer volume overall, coupled with a dramatic increase in the number of breweries brewing and beers available to drink.
As the pressure and competition grows, we’re seeing the sustained trend of takeovers of craft breweries by bigger corporates – sorry – I meant to say ‘partnering with like-minded business colleagues among the brewing fraternity’ apparently.
And like those proverbial Japanese soldiers lost on a desert island who don’t realise the war is over, some of us are still lost in the woods trying to find a technical definition of craft beer.
If do you want a precise technical definition, be careful what you wish for.
CAMRA of course, have a very tight and precise definition of real ale, which is precisely why they’ve spent the last two years trying to revitalise now we’re in a globalised world of excellent beer, wondering if they’re about cask ale, good quality beer more generally, saving pubs, or acting as a sales promotion agency for Wetherspoons.
In 2017, beer writing has been characterised by discussions – robust discussions – OK, arguments – fierce arguments – OK fights – about all these issues, and more.
Given that we proudly call ourselves one of the friendliest, most sociable industries in the world – and I genuinely believe we are – it’s amazing how much we can find to argue about!
Cask ale for example. Is it good enough? Is it expensive enough? Is it cheap enough?
After dipping my toe in this issue back in January, I’d like to say now on the record, categorically, that cask ale is great and there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. It has always been great, it is always great now, and it always will be great, and Paul Nunny, could you please just give me some proof that my wife and dog are safe and well, and will be released soon like you promised. Thank you.
More recently we’ve had very public spats about New England IPA, a beer style that’s created civil war among craft beer fans. On one side there are those who think this is an absolute joke of a style, an affront to brewing tradition, a product of Instagram culture and the first solid evidence that craft beer might be getting too faddy for its own good.
And on the other side, I suppose there are some people who must disagree with that for some reason.
Just this week, we’ve seen an online spat between people on one side, who think beers using sexist imagery to sell themselves should be banned for beer competitions, and people on the other side, who are dicks.
And then there’s a seemingly intensifying spat about the ethics of beer writing.
If a beer writer gets sent beer for free, can their opinion on that beer be trusted?
If a beer writer gets invited on a trip – a junket, sorry – to a brewery and is entertained, can any of their opinions be regarded as valid?
If a beer writer falls down in a bar and there’s no one there to hear it, do they make a sound? Or do they just Instagram it instead?
But these arguments, these spats, are important, at least up to the point where social media amplifies them and twists them into something nastier.
The role of the Guild is ‘to extend the public knowledge and appreciation of beer and pubs and to raise the standard of beer communication’.
Much of the time, that means celebrating beer, educating our readers about it, finding the good stuff and getting it to a wider audience.
But that doesn’t mean the guild is some provisional wing of the beer industry’s PR machine, providing gushing coverage of whatever that industry decides to do, in the terms the industry wants. We shouldn’t just be cheerleaders, breathlessly parroting the industry’s agenda.
Like any other industry or interest, beer needs to be scrutinised, analysed and occasionally held to account.
And so do we, as writers.
Beer writing has expanded so much in the last twenty years, and we as writers must now think carefully about what role we want to perform.
Not a single one of us can be an expert in every single aspect of it. You can’t be a newshound, and a flavour expert, and have an academic knowledge of the history of brewing, and be an industry analyst, and have a perspective on alcohol policy, and an in-depth knowledge of global beer styles, and be an effective campaigning voice for cask ale, all at the same time. It’s not possible.
And that’s great! There’s room for specialisation in all those things, and the totality of beer writing is so much bigger and richer as a result.
The social media revolution has made us all communicators about beer, and while I personally believe writing will always be the most important and effective part of that, the broader landscape is hugely exciting. Even if we want to write, we have to start thinking about photography. We may find out voices are more effective, or get a different side to them, on podcasts or radio, or even in person, at live events.
But there are risks in this brave new world.
Social media has the potential to make narcissists of us all. Badly-lit bottle shots and a hundred hash tags on an Instagram post do not extend the public knowledge and appreciation of beer. Self-indulgent blog posts describing in detail about how you swapped a bottle of Cantillon Geuze with someone in Vermont for a bottle of Hill Farmstead’s Society and Solitude #10 making you the only person in Britain to have a bottle don’t represent a raising of the standard of beer communication.
(And anyway, I’ve got a bottle in my fridge at home that I bought when I visited the brewery last month so screw you, you ticker.)
Whatever channel you’re communicating in, the basic rules of old-fashioned journalism still apply. As your reader or viewer, make me care. Take me somewhere. Tell me a story.
All tonight’s winners have succeeded in this mission, have told compelling stories about their subjects in fresh ways that engage readers, listeners and viewers.
Each judge on the panel is an expert of some kind, but probably not in what the entrant is writing about. They probably don’t know the entrant, and may never have read their work before, and next year their places will be taken by someone new.
So if you think it’s always the same old names being shortlisted in the same categories year after year, this is not because judging is some kind of cosy old boy’s network. It’s because those people’s work appeals fresh, every year, to a different set of judges who may not have read them before.
Conversely, if you’re someone who has entered several different categories with work you’re really proud of, and you haven’t been as successful in getting shortlisted as you hoped – this is not a referendum on your worth as a beer writer. At no point have the judges sat down together and decided to shun you this year. Your work in each category has been judged independently of every other category. Believe me, we all have years where we feel like some of our best work has been overlooked, and next year might be completely different.
You can see the full list of winners here. Go check out some of their work. 2017 was a great year for beer, and a great year for beer writing. Let’s have it again in 2018.