Category: Beer Writing

| Beer Books, Beer Writing, Books, Craft Beer, The Meanings of Craft Beer, Writing

Writing a Book in Lockdown, Week 3: Here Come the Hard Yards

I’m writing and self-publishing a book during lockdown, and sharing my experience with anyone else thinking of doing the same, especially if it’s the first time you’ve tried. This week: getting closer to the real words.

Every book has its own reading list

Word-count at the start of week 3: 21581

I started this series of blog posts by showing how I plan a book on my wall using post-its. To show what happens next, I need to jump back a bit.

This book was inspired by my having read one book in the stack above: Cræft, by Alexander Langlands. As the idea took shape, and grew from a rough talk to a scripted slideshow presentation, and then to a long essay and finally into a book-length treatment, so my reading expanded. I think this is only the second time I’ve had a book idea directly as a result of reading someone else’s, but even if a book I telling the story of me taking a physical journey, I always do a lot of desk research before I set off. My reading for this project has been going on for about a year now.

The first few weeks of the process are great fun. I usually start off with one book, or maybe a Wikipedia entry, and check the sources and bibliography for other titles. Certain books are mentioned again and again, and you soon realise these are the pre-eminent books in their field. I tend to be a bit of a generalist with my own books, covering a broad area, so I’m never that worried about finding someone else who has done exactly what I’m aiming to do.

Once I have a list of every book I need, I can pick them up pretty cheaply. If you haven’t come across it, AbeBooks is an aggregator of thousands of bookshops around the world. Unless one of the titles you’re looking for is particularly rare, you can usually pick up any book for less than a fiver, including postage. If you’re looking for something old and out of copyright, there’s a good chance you can download a PDF or kindle of it for free from sites such as the Gutenberg Project.

The above photo shows the main pile of books I’ve used on this project.

Once I have my books, I have a fairly laborious research process that I would love to improve upon, but haven’t been able to. I read each book with a pencil in my hand, marking the passages I think I might want to directly refer to, and writing any thoughts that occur to me while reading in the margin. After I’ve finished each one, I sit with the book at my desk, and write up a set of notes, each book in a separate word document, copying out the marked passages and either paraphrasing them or typing them as direct quotes. I write up my marginalia in italics so I can see what were my own thoughts and insights and what I’m taking from the text itself. At a certain point, when I think I have enough research (and it’s never easy to drag yourself from the research to the writing phase) that’s when I go through all my notes and generate the famous wall of post-its, to which I add much more of my own material, notes from travel if I’ve done any for the book, and so on.

I detailed last week how I get from a wall of random post-its to an outline of the book in a word document. At this stage, I would love it if I could just start writing, referring back to my notes as and when I need to. On an article, that would be easy. But for a 50,000- to 100,000-word book, the scope of it, the expanse of it, is simply too much for me to keep in my head at this stage. I think this is why so many people who would love to write a book are daunted by the prospect: how do you keep any kind of coherence over such a long slog?

By the time I’m close to finishing writing a book, the whole thing is alive inside my brain. I know where every key point is, almost down to the page number. I can almost see the shape and structure of the book in my head, and turn it in virtual space to look at it from all angles, checking the joins and the flow. But when I’m in that state, there’s no room for anything else in my brain. If my wife pops her head round the door and asks if I’d like a cup of tea, I forget my name and what day it is, and find myself completely unable to answer. This is not a good place to be for any longer than a week or two. So to get to that state at the right time, I have to use more tricks.

(By the way – if you’re writing a book that’s more of a reference or guide, you don’t need to worry about any of this. If you know you’re writing a guide to, say, the best 300 beers from Belgium, you know how long each entry has to be and what information has to be in it. It’s no less of a slog, and the monotony of it brings its own special endurance challenges, but at least the route is clearly marked out for you. With a long-form narrative – fiction or non-fiction – you have to lay down the road before you can travel upon it.)

So here’s what I’ve been doing over the last week.

My notes from books gave me my post-its, and the post-its gave me my outline. But by the time I’ve written the outline down, I can’t remember who said what or where most things come from. At this stage, I have no option but to go back to my notes and go through them in detail to start fleshing out the outline.

I’m learning a lot of new stuff here, in a subject area I haven’t explored before. I’m not yet quite confident enough with the fine detail. The structure is different from anything else I’ve written in that it’s not a story – chronological or based on a journey or whatever – it’s an argument. So I know the book falls into parts 1, 2 and 3, and that part 2 itself splits into an intro and three main sub-parts: (o), (i), (ii), and (iii). So I go through every page of my notes, and mark up which part of the book each point belongs in.

As I write or cut and paste each point across, I put a line through it.

Often, as I’m copying a point across, or I put two previously separate bits together, it will spark a thought and I’ll write a sentence, a paragraph, or even a page or two. Every single rush or spark of inspiration is precious, so I let it run its course before going back to transcribing the notes. Anything that’s cut and pasted joins the italicised outline, to distinguish it now from my own text in the main font.

I’ll be honest: this bit doesn’t feel like proper writing. But by the end, I know that, say, part 2(i) is all about the nineteenth century Arts & Crafts movement and that every point I have about Arts & Crafts is in part 2(i) of the document, in approximately the right order. I now have a 20,000-word manuscript, some of which has random outbursts of writing which hopes to make it to the finished text, the rest of which still needs to be rewritten and joined up into a proper narrative.

So that’s the boring bit out of the way. I have nearly everything I need in the document that will eventually become the book. Next task: actually write the bastard, in my own words.

The Meanings of Craft Beer: Why the term ‘craft beer’ is completely undefinable, hopelessly misunderstood and absolutely essential, which be published in e-book, audiobook and print-on-demand formats globally on 25th June.

| Beer Writing, Books, The Meanings of Craft Beer, Writing

Thinking of writing a book on lockdown? Here’s how I start mine.

I’ve set myself a task of writing and self-publishing a new book in 13 weeks. I’m sharing the process in case it helps anyone else who is thinking of spending lockdown starting a book they’ve been wanting to write. Here’s how I plan the structure of my first draft.

I posted some slightly psychedelic images on Insta a couple of weeks ago. From 13th March I was in quarantine in my study and our spare room, and you could have been forgiven for thinking it was sending me mad. But this is how I’ve started every book since Shakespeare’s Local.

As readers of my narrative books will know, my style tends to be rambling and discursive. But it does have a method. When I write about beer, I want to link it to the wider world and place it on context. For me, a good book (of mine) should contain some history, some storytelling, some personal experience and insight, and various other elements running through the book like threads. I think this multi-faceted approach raises the chances of it being more relevant to a wider group of people. You probably wouldn’t want every beer book written in my style, but it works for me.

When I did Shakespeare’s Local – the story of one London pub over 600 years – I realised pretty quickly that the history of the building itself – which the books was supposedly about – was not book-length and was only really of interest to students of architecture. The book couldn’t just be about the building – it had to be about the area and why the pub was there, and why it was so important. It had to be about the people who drank in it – but just listing the famous people who may or may not have drunk there wasn’t enough. To tell the full story I had to talk about commerce, theatre, the River Thames, the Guilds of the City of London, the evolution of pubs more generally, and much more that helps contextualise the pub and explain why its existence is significant and interesting to read about.

One option could have been to have a chapter on each aspect. But I wanted to tell a chronological story where each chapter had all these different themes running through it. This was a complex undertaking, and trying to plot and plan how to do it would bring me out in a cold sweat. So I adapted a method I started using when writing Dungeons & Dragons scenarios as a teenager and mixed in some techniques from strategy workshops in my advertising days – I’m not sure which of those two admissions I should be most ashamed of – and came up with this.

As I’m reviewing and finalising my notes, I put each key point I want to make on a post-it. I use different colours for different themes. For Shakespeare’s Local it might have been green for the local history of Southwark, pink for the history of pubs generally, yellow for my lame jokes and so on. For The Meanings of Craft Beer, pink is how the craft beer industry works, orange is the history of craft in a broader sense, green is an insight or idea I might have had myself while reading, pale yellow is stuff on the nature of work, blue is about the definitional problems of ‘craft beer’, and on it goes. Over a period of weeks, as I’m working, the post-its gradually populate the wall. The image above was taken when I’d almost finished, when I was nearing the cut-off of what I was going to read and explore before I stopped putting off writing the thing.

The next step is to look at all the post-its and start to group the ones that seem like they belong together in a narrative sense. That takes a couple of days, and this time it ended up looking like this:

Most of these post-its moved many times over the couple of days I was doing this – connections can be made in different places. This is the bit where I stare at the wall and pretend to be a DCI in a crime show. Often I just stare for hours. Sometimes it’s a struggle to get things to connect. Other times your brain does a lot of sub-processing and eventually sees the pattern. If you’re old enough to remember the brief, strange craze for ‘Magic Eye’ pictures in the early 1990s, and you were one of the people for whom it worked, it can be a bit like that.

I don’t think this one works, by the way.

While I was sorting and grouping, I had a breakthrough which you can see from the three big post-its, which I added afterwards – the book naturally fell into three parts, as I outlined in my previous blog. That hasn’t happened before – usually I get six, or seven, or eight or ten clouds of post-its and have to work out what order they go in. This time, as I was shifting things around, the structure emerged and I realised it was a linear argument: break something down, learn a lot of new stuff from different sources, use the new material to build it back up again.

That’s when I knew I had the overall book here. Then it was a question of refining. A day later, it looked like this:

I’ve now got each point in order. I can see just from looking at it that the first part, the left-hand column, is mainly about definitional semantics. I can see the middle column is the main part of the book, which starts by explaining broader themes of craft and then brings in more beer stuff, and I can see that, rather pleasingly, part three is a mix of all areas.

When I’m happy that everything is in the right order (with a few points that don’t belong anywhere on the far right, probably to be dropped from the book) I take them down carefully in order to my desk, and then write up an outline of the book in note form. When I finished this, I had the first 3000 words of the book down. One of the hardest parts in writing any book is looking at the blank page and summoning up the courage to start. Sneaking around that is just one advantage of this method.

That was two weeks ago. I’m now up to 13,000 worlds as I start to flesh out the structure out and do the actual writing. The quality of the writing is not yet good enough. But I now know what I want to say and where I want to say it, so I can now concentrate on rhythm and tone, and focus on finding the right words.

I’ll post again with how that’s going, and more thoughts on what might be helpful if you haven’t done this before. I’m also planning a live webinar to chat through the book-writing process if enough people are interested. But now, the word count is calling…

| Beer Books, Beer Writing, Books, The Meanings of Craft Beer, Writing

The Meanings of Craft Beer: My lockdown book, out 25th June

I’ve set myself a 13-week project: to write and self-publish a new book that I’ve been wanting to write for the last year. Here’s what it’s all about.

I find myself between jobs. Between assignments. Between books. We have no household income for now. Being a freelance writer is precarious enough at the best of times. Being a freelance writer in the first industry to be completely shut down by Coronavirus is pretty absolute.

Lockdown is psychologically tough for everyone. The thing is… back in the olden days I used to pay good money to hire a cottage near the sea where I could be on my own, not speak to anyone, and rarely leave the house. It’s something I do at least once, if not twice, in the process of writing a book. I get the most insane amount of work done in those writing weeks. So now I’m presented with similar circumstances (albeit without the sea, sadly) the sensible thing to do would seem to be to write a new book. So yesterday, I took to social media to gauge interest in a self-published e-book and audiobook (the lead times on paper books are much longer) and the response has encouraged me to make it happen. So here goes!

This is an idea that grew out of a short, ten minute talk, into a longer 25-minute talk, and then into an hour-long slideshow presentation. I was expecting people to be annoyed by it. Instead, the audiences of those shows asked me when the book was coming out. When I said there was no book, they told me in no uncertain terms that there should be.

It’s fair to say that it’s a niche topic and both my agent and the usual publishers I work with have no interest in it. But publishers work in one country at a time and the niche audience who will be interested ion this book on a global scale os pretty big, hopefully. So digital self-publishing is the way to go.

OK Pete, but what’s the frikkin’ book ABOUT? I hear you ask. OK, here goes.

A year or so ago, I picked up this then-newly published book:

It mentions craft beer once on the first page, and then never again. Instead, it puts forward an argument for working with your hands and reviving skills that our technological age has seemingly deprived us of.

It made me realise that the word ‘craft’, when shackled to the word ‘beer’, has had its meaning changed quite substantially. It also made me realise that one big reason there is no satisfactory definition of ‘craft beer’ is that in order to have one, you need to have the definition of the word ‘craft’ fairly locked down. And it isn’t. It’s a word that shifts meaning and struggles against being pinned down.

From here I went off on a journey exploring the concept of ‘craft’ in its broadest sense: the difference between craft, art and science; the artificial separation of manual work and intellectual work; the difference between learned knowledge and innate knowledge and how craft unites the two. I explored the Victorian Arts & Crafts movement and visited William Morris’s house in Walthamstow. I read books by hippie furniture makers, Victorian wheelwrights and professors of linguistics. Each book I read had something important and life-affirming in it. It was a diverse selection of voices, but each one spoke about what makes work, and ultimately life, more meaningful.

Coming back to conversations around craft beer with this broader perspective on craft, I realised that we’re talking about the wrong things. Craft beer is – or can be – an important, meaningful and nourishing concept. In fact it is. When I’ve been speaking to drinkers and makers of craft beer about some of the ideas I’ve explored, they recognise them from their own experience, instantly. But our conversations aren’t framing that experience in a useful way, and that’s why all those debates around the definition of craft beer are so fruitless and infuriating.

So at the moment, the book is called The Meanings of Craft Beer: Why The Term ‘Craft Beer’ Is Completely Undefinable, Hopelessly Misunderstood, and Absolutely Essential. Like most of my books, it’s totally about beer, and at the same time, kind of not really about beer at all.

The book falls into three three parts:

Part One: ‘Craft Beer’ is Completely Undefinable

I kick of by looking at the evolution of the concept of craft beer, analysing and demolishing attempts to give it a concrete, technical definition, and exploring why this is an impossible task.

Part Two: ‘Craft Beer’ is Hopelessly Misunderstood

Here, in the main part of the book, I explore the broader concept of craft and, where relevant, give examples from beer. I look at the definition of ‘craft’ itself, before going into detail around what I see as three key times when interest in craft spiked, and why:

i) The Arts and Crafts movement of the late nineteenth century, in response to the industrialisation of work (when brewing was going through its own industrial and technological revolution.)

ii) The craft revival of the 1970s, in response to the automation of manual labour and the growth of big brand corporations (when CAMRA appeared in the UK and what would later be called craft brewing emerged in the US.)

iii) The craft revival of the 2010s, in response to online existence, the absolute dominance of corporations, and the deskilling of white-collar work (when the craft beer boom went global.)

Part Three: Craft Beer is Absolutely Essential

Having destroyed definitions of craft beer, then looked at the world of craft more broadly, we come back to ‘craft beer’ and rebuild it using what we’ve learned. I’ll argue that even if it can’t be technically defined, it remains a meaningful and important concept, and focus on the issues that make it so. I finish by looking at alternative terms and dismissing these too, before suggesting a tongue-in-cheek solution for what we should in fact call it.

If that sounds like something you’d be interested in reading, keep checking in here, where as well as writing the book, I’ll also be going through my process, sharing my thoughts around it and talking about how I work, in case that’s useful for anyone else who is considering using this strange time to write that book you’ve always wanted to write.

I’m currently weighing up different options for publication, looking at the pros and cons of Kindle, Patreon etc. I’ll share my experience of this side of things too. My intention is to publish an e-book and audio book (with me narrating) on 25th June, retailing at somewhere between £5 and £7.

I hope you’ll buy it.

| Beer, Original Gravity

The Future of Original Gravity: A Statement

The print format of our beer magazine is taking a break. But it’s only a temporary one…

When Daniel Neilson created Original Gravity at the end of 2014, his vision was for a different kind of beer magazine, one that was like ‘your slightly more knowledgeable best mate, full of interesting, readable stories that appealed to both beer novice and expert’. It has always been singled out for the design by Adam McNaught-Davies (lindoneast.co.uk).

Pulling together a quality print magazine that consistently lives up to expectations is a lot of work — too much for one person. So at the start of 2017, Daniel brought on board award-winning beer writers Adrian Tierney Jones and Pete Brown, as editor and editor-at-large respectively. As a team of three, we raised our ambitions even further, with a lofty mission of attempting to become ‘the New Yorker of beer’. Big goals should always be out of reach — you have to try much harder to reach them, and we think we made some big strides, introducing fresh and incredibly talented voices to beer who had real human, engaging, often moving stories to tell.

OG is distributed to quality bars and pubs and is free to pick up. Every penny of production costs has to be met by advertising. We pay the writers we commission and hopefully, there may even be some profit left to split between the three of us. Achieving the required amount of ad revenue has been getting increasingly difficult. We don’t press the ‘Go’ button until we know there’s a surplus. Original Gravity #23 was due to drop in September, but it didn’t hit that surplus.

For the moment then, the UK print edition of Original Gravity is temporarily on hold (the Canadian edition launches in Alberta as well as Ontario next year). We still believe the model works, but we need to take time out and rethink it in the UK. In the meantime, we’ll be publishing original content on originalgravitymag.com, including commentary on issues in beer that we feel we want to talk about (as well as continuing with occasional Original Gravity Live events). At the moment there is no budget for new writers, so it will be Pete Brown and Adrian Tierney-Jones who will be putting in the words, which means that the message of OG that has been there from the start — independent, asymmetrical, unconventional — will still be heard.

A big thank you to all the advertisers, distributors, stockists, writers and readers who have supported us so far. We’re not giving up. And we’ll let you know as soon as OG is ready to return to print.

| Beer, Beer Writing, British Guild of Beer Writers, Writing

Write (or tweet, or Instagram, or podcast) about beer? If so, what can we do to help?

Calling fellow beer communicators – what, if anything, would you like the British Guild of Beer Writers to be doing?

 

Like, for instance, should we change this logo, or does it still work?

 

I’ve sent a version of this post by email to all Guild members this morning. Now I’m posting it here to reach people who communicate about beer who may not be members of the Guild.

Last month I was elected Chair of the British Guild of Beer Writers, succeeding Tim Hampson who steps down after twelve very successful years during which he dragged the Guild into the twenty-first century, overseeing a growth in membership to record levels, a significant improvement in what the Guild offers its members, and a transformation in how fun and successful events such as the annual dinner and summer party are. 
 
I have some big shoes to fill.

We say it an awful lot, but twenty years after starting work on my first book I really believe it: this is the best time there’s ever been to be drinking and writing about beer. 
 
But at the same time, there’s arguably never been a worse time in recent memory for people seeking to make a living from writing. Print titles are struggling, and word rates and book advances are going down. For those of us who spend most of our time doing this, I doubt there’s a single one of us who hasn’t been asked to do what we do for free, or rather, for that precious currency, ‘exposure’. Of course, if you’re doing this as a hobby, maybe that’s OK – it’s easier than ever to get your thoughts, opinions and stories in front of people if you’re not expecting anything in return. And the Guild must represent your views too.    
 
The nature of beer communication is evolving so rapidly I doubt there’s a single one of us who can keep track of the full scope of what we all do and how we do it. 
 
The Guild exists to help its membership communicate about beer. To do that well, your board needs to know what you want from us. We’re working on loads of different projects and over recent years the Guild has greatly expanded the services it offers members. 
 
But there’s more that we could be doing. To work out what that should be, I’d like to make the board a bit more transparent and encourage you to engage with us more.  
 
The board meets approximately once every two months. We’ll post the dates of these meetings well in advance, so that if there’s anything you would like bringing up or would like discussing at a board meeting we can make that happen. 
 
Pretty soon we’ll be setting up a ‘members only’ section. of the Guild website where, if you’re interested, you’ll be able to see key documents such as minutes of board meetings. 
 
We’re also considering having meetings in different parts of the country. This would mean an increase in expenses, but if members outside London would be interested in meeting and chatting to the board where you’re based then that may be a good investment. (If that doesn’t appeal to anyone, we’ll save the money!)
 
And I’d like to ask you now: if you have any thoughts, ideas, opinions, inspiration, complaints, concerns, or bounteous praise (especially that last one) about the Guild and how the board is running it, please share them with me below. Anything I can deal with myself, I will. Anything that needs taking to a board meeting, I’ll make sure it’s on the agenda.
 
If you’re based in the UK and you communicate about beer but you’ve decided for whatever reason that you don’t want to be a member of the Guild, I’d love to hear if there’s anything we could be doing that would make you consider (re)joining. Should we be doing more to represent podcasters? Do you want to see more training? Do you want us to organise brewery visits? Could or should we be doing more to improve access to brewers? I’m open to all suggestions.

If you can make it next week, I look forward to sharing a pint with you there.
 
Cheers
 
Pete

| Beer, Beer Writing, Marketing

Under The Influencer

Exploring the tricky territory of free stuff and paid-for recommendations.

 

Last week, I was asked if I’d like to become an Amazon influencer. “The idea is pretty simple,” said the e-mail from the guy at Upfluence.com, “You’ll have your own page on Amazon.com where you can recommend your favorite products and earn money on qualifying purchases made through your page.”

This guy, Doug, approached me because he’d seen my Twitter profile and thought it made me a perfect candidate. I’m guessing he was looking simply at the number of followers I have rather than anything I actually tweet, because if he’d read my tweets he’d have realised pretty quickly that I live in the UK and therefore don’t have any dealings with the American Amazon.com. But that’s not the main reason I’ve ignored Doug’s emails.

Is its just me or is this a really odd concept? Is anyone reading this and thinking, “Ooh, I occasionally read Pete’s writing about beer or cider, I wonder what deodorant he’d recommend or what brand of toner refill cartridge he uses?”

I just find the whole idea of identifying as an ‘influencer’ really odd. I hope I am influential: I’ve spoken to several people who left their jobs and started working in beer or even opened their own breweries after reading something I’ve written. But it’s like being labelled a ‘consumer’ or ‘shopper’ – it’s something we do, not something we are.

I’m aware that some people make their money doing this, creating vlogs or Instagram feeds where they talk about the latest make up products they’ve been sent for free. It strikes me as a rather sad way of living, and I’m astonished that it works: if you know someone is recommending products purely because they are being paid to do so by the people selling them, why would you believe anything they say?

It reminds me of another disturbing trend in the beer world.

Each week, I get sent beer and cider for free by brewers or cider makers who are keen to hear what I think about it. I’m always grateful to receive it. If someone asks me for personal, private feedback, I always endeavour to give it, but sometimes fail if I’m too busy. I now review beers for Original Gravity magazine, and if I really like a beer, I’ll write it up for that. But I don’t do beer reviews on this blog: it’s not the aspect of beer writing that interests me personally, and there are a great many other people doing it perfectly well.

Increasingly, I’m getting e-mails from brewers – or more often, from junior PR execs working on their behalf – offering me free beer in exchange for a review. Sometimes, they offer free beer in exchange for a positive review. Each time I get an email like this, I write back thanking them, and explaining my approach as outlined above – I can’t promise a good review, or any review at all, but it might get one if it’s really good, so if that sounds OK, here’s my address. And every single time, I never hear from them again – no response to my email, and no beer in the mail.

I don’t do this job to try to get free beer, and I think there’s something dodgy about people for whom that’s a main motivation. But there’s also something dodgy about brewers or PRs who see this as a transactional relationship. I guess the reason they never write back is that they’d have to admit in writing that they’re only interested in sending beer out to people who promise to write something nice about it, and that really doesn’t look great on paper. If you know you’re only getting a positive review because that was the condition on which the beer was sent, how can you take any satisfaction from reading it? And how can anyone trust the person writing it?

Some of us draw the line in different places. I know some writers who refuse any free beer and will only review stuff they’ve paid for themselves. I respect that, even if I don’t go that far. I get a lot of free beer, and I only review a small fraction of it, so I know that the fact that I didn’t pay for it has not influenced my decision to review it. The few reviews I do write are always a mix of beer I’ve been sent and beer I’ve bought and paid for in a pub or bottle shop.

Next week, I’m off on a press trip to Catalonia. This is being fully paid for by the Catalan tourist board. I expect that at least some of us on the trip will receive some fairly sharp criticism on social media when we start tweeting about it, for accepting such hospitality. Again, I know writers who never accept such trips and respect them for it. I’m going because I’ve been keen to check out the explosion in Spanish craft beer for several years now and think there will be some genuinely interesting stories, but haven’t been able to afford to do it under my own steam. Will my reporting of the trip be influenced by the fact that I’m being given hospitality? I don’t believe so (beyond the fact that I’m actually there, of course.) But any story I write about it will carry a disclaimer explaining that it’s been paid for by someone else, so the reader can make up their own mind.

Communicators in any discipline who have a decent-sized following are in a privileged position. People put their trust in what we write. Especially when we write about our own personal experiences, there’s an unwritten contract with the reader that we will be open and honest. If I were to start recommending things purely because I was being paid or rewarded for making those recommendations, my integrity would be trashed. The trust of my readers would, quite rightly, evaporate.

We live at a time when big data is replacing creativity. The Upfluence guy only cared about the number of followers I have on Twitter, not the content or nature of my tweets, nor why those people have chosen to follow my account. The brewery’s PR firm isn’t really interested in what I think of the beer; they just want to submit a report boasting of how many pieces of coverage they achieved.

Call me old-fashioned, but I think true influence is harder earned, and much more precious than that.

| Beer Books, Beer Writing, British Guild of Beer Writers, Events, Miracle Brew, Pubs, Radio, Writing

So Farewell Then, 2017

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.

Cheers!

| Beer, Beer Books, Beer Writing, Writing

Beery Books for Christmas

Obviously you’ve already bought mine (or dropped strong hints to have it bought for you) but it’s been a bumper year for beer books. Here are my three favourites of 2016.

The World Atlas of Beer (second edition)
Tim Webb and Stephen Beaumont, Mitchell Beazley, RRP £25

Michael Jackson’s first World Guide to Beer (and its vinous forerunner, Hugh Johnson’s World Atlas of Wine) set a template for coffee table drinks books that has slowly mutated over the years, and spawned off-shoots in the ‘how many beers to drink before you die’ mould that seem to be hitting the shelves daily. I question the need for books like this, partly because there are so bloody many of them and they’re all essentially the same, and partly because if you want beer reviews, the internet is a much more up-to-date and accessible way of getting them. But these books work because people love having them all in one place and ticking them off – or some people do, at any rate.

What’s surprising when you go back to Jackson’s first book now is that there isn’t a single page of bottle shots and tasting notes, just longer, highly readable articles about different countries, regions and styles.

In this second edition of their guide – the first of which established Beaumont and Webb as the natural heirs to Jackson in the format he created – the authors managed to convince the publishers to get rid of the pages of bottle shot and tasting notes that have crept in over the years, and use the space instead to actually write about beer rather than simply cataloguing it. That makes this book a blast of fresh air in a format that’s become stuffy.

The world of good beer has expanded greatly since Jackson first mapped it out, and that’s why a book like this today needs two authors, one on either side of the Atlantic, if it is to be as authoritative as it needs to be. Both Webb and Beaumont have been writing about beer for decades – they have about sixty years experience between them. They still travel regularly to both the obvious beer countries – the US, Belgium, Germany, UK – and those that are rapidly emerging as new craft beer stars, such as Brazil, Spain, Japan.

At times the book’s scope is stretched a little too thin – some of the minor countries get a page with a nice photo and just enough room to list three or four up-and-coming craft brewers – but in the countries you really want to read about, no one does it better than these two. They combine their knowledge with a very dry wit, and don’t suffer fools gladly. The tone is calm scholarship rather than breathless enthusiasm, and they’re unafraid to be critical. But on every page you feel like you’re in the company of experts who love their subject.

(Like big, epic beer tomes? You should also check out the gargantuan Belgian Beer Book by Erik Verdonck and Luc de Raedemaeker, Lanoo, RRP £45.) 

Beer in So Many Words
Adrian Tierney-Jones (editor), Safe Haven Books in association with The Homewood Press, RRP £14.99

It’s not just beer writers who write about beer, and not all beer writing is good. To pull together an anthology of the best writing about beer (as opposed to ‘beer writing’) requires an extensive knowledge of the subject as well as being well-read much more broadly.

The contents page of the book is a delight to read in itself. As a community, beer geeks and writers need to be reminded fairly regularly that beer doesn’t belong just to us, that it’s a popular drink that is appreciated by a wide range of people. And here, names like Boak and Bailey, Roger Protz, Jeff Evans, Melissa Cole and, well, me, rub shoulders with Dylan Thomas, Ian Rankin, Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene and Charles Dickens.

This is a book to lose yourself in, to wander back and forth through, to put down briefly and take a sip of something dark and rich while you ponder. It’s themed in sections: The Taste of Beer, Beer in Pubs, Beer People, Brewing, Beer Journeys, Beer and Food and The Meaning of Beer. It reminds you of what made you fall in love with beer (and reading, and writing) and is highly likely to give you fresh perspectives and insights on a subject you thought you knew all about.

(Like anthologies of writing about beer? You should also check out 
CAMRA’s Beer Anthology: a Pub Crawl through British Culture, edited by Roger Protz, CAMRA, RRP £9.99)

Food and Beer
Daniel Burns and Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergso, Phaidon, RRP £29.95

Of all the avalanche of beer books being published right now, the most dramatic trend is in books about beer and food. Within the last couple of years, I’ve acquired a whole bookshelf full on this subject alone.

I’m a keen cook, and am always looking for inspiration. I use some of these books often, but am often frustrated that most of them seem to consist mainly of big hunks of red meat, of burgers, wings and pulled pork, of melted cheese and stout-braised ribs and sticky puddings with rich glazes. I’m sure it’s all very nice, but I’m already bored of the kind of food because it seems to be the only thing you ever get served in craft-centric pubs and bars. When I get home, I want to eat more healthily. At the same time, I want to push my cooking skills, taking time out of writing to do something absorbing and satisfying, learning new techniques and skills.

‘Food and Beer’ may not be the most exciting title of a book about food and beer (I’ve already got three different books called Beer and Food, and one other Food and Beer) but this is the topic getting a higher end, classier treatment than it’s ever had so far, and it’s no accident that ‘food’ comes first in the title. Chef Daniel Burns has cooked at Noma and the Fat Duck, and gypsy brewer Jeppe Jarnit-Bergso founded Evil Twin brewing and also worked as beer director at Noma, routinely billed as the best restaurant in the world.

What I like about this book is that there’s stuff that is insanely ambitious for an amateur like me, with those kinds of recipe that are actually five separate recipes nested within one big dish that require two days of work. But there are also relatively simple things to test yourself out with – anyone can make a heritage tomato sandwich with cider-infused mayonnaise.

Having put this book through its paces in my kitchen, it has one major flaw. A friend of mine works as a recipe tester for various celebrity chefs, taking their ideas and cooking them in her well-appointed but strictly domestic kitchen, and working out the timings, quantities and temperatures that actually work in a kitchen  a little less awesome than Noma’s. Like several other beer and food books I’ve acquired this year, this book really, desperately, needed her input. Some of the quantities in recipes are utterly nonsensical (Welsh Rarebit that contains ten times the volume of double cream to that of cheese? Really?) and whatever oven they worked out the cooking times on bears no relationship whatsoever to how mine works.

But with that fairly significant caveat aside, this is a book that combines two elements I’ve always wanted from a beer and food book: one, it seriously elevates beer as both an accompaniment and an ingredient. There’s nothing wrong with beer being allied with hearty pub and bar fare, but it’s good to see it in haute cuisine, showing its adaptability and scope. And secondly, it inspires me to be a better cook, and makes me believe I can stretch and do some of the more challenging dishes. (Although it might be a while before I attempt the pork broth and smoked egg whites on chrysanthemum base paired with smoked wheat beer.)

(Like reading about how beer and food go together? Also check out Mark Dredge’s Cooking With Beer, Dog & Bone, RRP £16.99)

Disclosure: I’m good friends with the authors of the first book and the editor of the second one. One big reason we’re good friends is that we admire each other’s work. I genuinely love these books, and have tried not to let friendship bias me in my opinion of them.

| Beer, Beer Books, Beer Writing, Books, British Guild of Beer Writers, Journalism, The Pub: A Cultural Institution

Beer Writer of the Year

On Thursday night the British Guild of Beer Writers named me their Beer Writer of the Year, for the third time.

 

I even bought a suit.

It caps an incredible year for me and I’m obviously delighted. But I still wouldn’t recommend three simultaneous book contracts to anyone, and won’t be repeating this trick any time soon.

I won two categories before picking up the overall award. First was Best Writing in Trade Media, for my columns in the Morning Advertiser. Luck always plays a big part in any success, and I think this year I was particularly lucky to have some great stories fall into my lap. The rediscovery by Carlsberg of the earliest generation of modern brewing yeast, and their successful attempt to ‘re-brew’ with it, was a unique event. And my chance to interview the man who invented nitro dispense – the technology that makes Guinness so distinctive and is now being explored by forward-thinking craft brewers – just weeks before his passing was something I’ll always remember. The research for my forthcoming book on beer ingredients also led me to some stories that I could write up as columns without taking anything away from the book.

In case you’re interested, here are links to the pieces wot won it:

 

I also won Best Writing in National Media mainly, I think, for my new book The Pub: A Cultural Institution (which is currently being sold insanely cheaply on Amazon), but I also entered pieces I’ve written for Ferment and Belgian Beer and Food magazines. I’m not the only decent writer in these excellent magazines – if you haven’t done so already, you should do yourself a favour and check them out.

As I said on the night, I owe the success of The Pub to Jo Copestick, a long-standing editor and publisher who specialise in food and drink and design, who has worked with and encouraged most good beer writers out there. We first spoke about the idea for The Pub ten years ago. She plays the long game, and she made this book finally happen. Even though it’s my name on the front I’m only a third of the team. People’s first reaction to it is that it’s a very beautiful book, and that is nothing to do with me and everything to do with Jo and designer Paul Palmer-Edwards at Grade Design. Sitting around the table with these two and being perfectionist about layout after layout was a wonderful working experience.

Having won these two categories, the judges then decided that overall, I was their Beer Writer of the Year.

It’s a trick of the order in which these awards are presented that my two awards were near the end of the evening. Earlier, it had looked like Mark Dredge was going to walk away with the big gong after sweeping Best Food and Drink Writing for his book, Cooking With Beer, and Best Beer and Travel Writing for his book The Best Beer in the World. I really hope this isn’t the start of a trend of publishing multiple books in a year because that way madness lies, but hearty congratulations to Mark for running me so close, and to the winners and runners-up in all the other categories.

Some of the stuff you hear around all awards ceremonies gets so repetitive it sounds platitudinous, but when you’re in the thick of it, phrases like ‘the standard was really high this year’ and ‘the quality of entries continues to improve’ get repeated because they are true. Having won this year, I’ll be chair of the judges next year. I’ve done this twice before. It’s always an interesting task, but the quality of work, often from writers I’ve never previously come across, scares me even as it delights me. No doubt this time next year, I’ll be here writing ‘the standard of entries was very high this year’ and ‘the judge’s decision was an extremely difficult one.’

I already know this will be true. As beer continues to excite greater numbers of people in all walks of life, many who fall in love with beer want to communicate their passion, and more and more of them are very good at it.

For a full list of winners in all categories, and comments from the judges, see the full press release here.