Category: Writing

| 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.

| Books, Events, The Pub: A Cultural Institution, Writing

The Pub – On Tour

My new book on pubs spans the whole of the UK. So it only seems fair to take it back to the places where it was researched.

Still need that elusive Christmas present for that difficult-to-buy-for person? Looking for an evening to kick off Christmas party season? I’m taking my new book (well, one of them) on tour.

 

The Pub is a coffee table, illustrated book that celebrates the unique cultural institution of the British pub. But it’s more than that. The main reason most people choose a pub is because of its atmosphere, but atmosphere is very tricky to write about. I’ve given it the best shot I can.

In these events, I’ll be reading a selection from the fifty short essays in the book that seek to evoke the atmosphere of the best pubs I came across – best in that respect anyway. These are not the best beer pubs or food pubs, nor the most historic or architecturally stunning (though many of them do score highly in these attributes.) They’re the pubs that feel special when you walk in, that feel like home, even if you can’t immediately figure out why.

But it would get dull if I just read out lots of short essays.

So I’ll also be illustrating my talk with a selection of the stunning photography from the book, giving you what I’m told is a fiendishly hard pub quiz to do, holding the Great Crisp Flavour Challenge, and contravening intellectual property rights with my travesty of Bullseye.

These are the dates we managed to fit in before Christmas. There are some glaringly obvious gaps here which I aim to fill in the New Year. (Norwich, Leeds and London being among the main candidates.)

 

These events are in association with Waterstones, who will be selling books at the events, and each pub is, obviously, one that features in the book. Admission is free but tickets need to be booked in advance, and are available from eventbrite.

I had such great times in these places while I was researching the book. Hoping to repeat the experience. See you there.

| Apples, Books, Radio, The Apple Orchard, Writing

Book of the Week

The Apple Orchard – coming to a radio near you…

I’m enormously proud, and more than a little nervous, that this morning BBC Radio 4 will be broadcasting the first episode of the serialisation of my new book, The Apple Orchard. 
My last narrative book, Shakespeare’s Local, was also Book of the Week, so I guess lightning can strike twice. It’s an enormous honour to be chosen. Shakespeare’s Local was read out by Tony ‘Baldrick’ Robinson, who made my words sound about 100 times funnier and more interesting than they read on the page. To follow that up, the producers decided they would like The Apple Orchard to be read by… me.
I can talk on radio just fine, but reading out something scripted is an entirely different skill, one I learned quickly in a studio in Glasgow three weeks ago. You can hear the results at 9.45am each day this week, Monday to Thursday.
There are many different strands to The Apple Orchard. Most people who know me keep referring to it as my ‘cider book’, and I have to stop myself referring to it in that way still. There’s a lot of cider drunk in the book, and cider production is addressed in detail towards the end, but it’s mainly about the cycle of the apple year, the history and nature of apple cultivation, and the symbolism and significance of this fruit in our lives, what it tells us about systems of belief and how we make sense of the world.
That’s an awful lot to fit into four fifteen minute broadcasts, so the abridger at Radio 4 had to choose one thread to follow. He chose to focus on the cycle of the apple year and what needs to be done in the orchard at various times. So this week, you can hear about the origins of the apple and how it came to England, how I learn to prune and graft apple trees, and the joy of apple harvest. I think of it as a ‘remix’ of the book, with different elements shuffled around to create something new, simpler and leaner.
This seemingly ordinary fruit is in fact one of the most potent symbols in our lives. It was a life-changing joy to unravel its story.
If you’re not near a radio at 9.45am, you can catch up on iPlayer by following the link in the screen grab above. The Apple Orchard will be available for about 30 days.
I‘ve been asked a lot if all this means I don’t write about beer any more. I can assure you that I do. I’m doing the final edits to my new beer book this week, which will be available spring 2017. After I’ve finished that, I’ll be blogging all the stuff about beer I didn’t have time to address while I was working on these books. I’m also writing regularly for the Morning Advertiser, Original Gravity and Ferment magazines. 

| Apples, Orchards, The Apple Orchard, Writing

Say hello to The Apple Orchard

Part two of my Year of Writing Dangerously…*

Today my seventh book, The Apple Orchard, hits the shelves (hopefully. Please God let it hit at least some shelves.)

When I wrote World’s Best Cider in 2013 with Bill, that book required the short, sharp, snappy sections typical of the guide book: 60 words on a cider here, 500 words on that cider maker there, 1000 words on the history, and so on. My books are normally long-form narrative, and I found much of my best writing was on the cutting room floor, so to speak, because it didn’t really belong in the cider book.

More importantly, the best stuff – or rather, the stuff that interested me the most at any rate – wasn’t about cider at all, but about apples, the people who grow them, the places they’re grown, and especially the history and mythology around them. Once we finished researching the cider book, I found myself missing orchards, and desperate to find a way to spend more time in them.

 

So I decided to write about apples themselves. Not just cider apples, but eating apples and dessert apples too.

 

I wanted to trace the history of what we believe to be a quintessentially English fruit through both our real and imagined past. Because I quickly  realised that the apple is the the most symbolically laden of any fruit – indeed of any food. Across many different mythologies and religions, in popular culture and phraseology, the apple dominates. And it does so out of all proportion to its actual importance to our diet. Sure, we eat a lot of apples, but if symbolic importance was proportionate to dietary importance, the Beatles would have released their records on the Wheat label, and New York would be affectionately known as The Big Loaf.

 

I lost the whole summer of 2014 to the seemingly simple question of whether the Forbidden Fruit in the Bible was an apple or not. Genesis never specifies what the fruit was, but the Western World has believed it to be an apple since the Middle Ages.

Pieter Paul Rubens’ depiction of Eden and the Forbidden Fruit

And yet when Michelangelo painted the roof of the Sistine Chapel, he clearly depicted it as a fig.

Michelangelo’s Forbidden… er, Fig

This could have been a whole book in itself – I read many on the subject. And they brought me, via the Middle East, South America, The Himalayas, the North Pole, the Happy Isles and the Moon, back round to the birth of modern horticulture.

 

I decided to follow the apple through the course of a year. It has its big showtimes at blossom in May and harvest in October, but as with anything in horticulture and agriculture, apple growing is a year-round activity.

 

I learned how to graft and prune fruit trees. I picked apples in an orchard on the slopes of Glastonbury Tor, beneath which King Arthur sleeps, immortal thanks to the magical apples of Avalon.

 

I also discovered, on my very first orchard visit with Bill, that I’ve developed a very serious allergy to eating apples. Thankfully whatever is causing the problem is left behind in the solid, or ‘pomace,’ when apples are pressed, because I can drink cider, and also, happily I discovered I can drink fresh apple juice. There are 4000 named varieties of apple cultivated in Britain, and a tasting of single variety juices revealed to me the astonishing array of flavours they possess.

 

The book ranges from myth to genetic modification, from wassail to the economics of the modern apple growing industry through meditations on soil. It’s a personal journey though the subject rather than an exhaustive history, but that’s what my new editor at Penguin felt the book needed to be. We cut a lot of stuff out about mythology and history and how this supposedly English fruit was originally born in Kazakhstan, because the book would have been rambling and unfocused and 500 pages long if we’d left it in. But my journey through orchards still gives chance to touch on all these points.

 

I wrote some more about all this stuff in a piece for the Daily Telegraph’s weekend section last week. I’m going to be doing as many events as I can to promote the book though the autumn – another excuse to get back into orchards and near trees. (Now, I have a physical response to entering an orchard. I can feel my heart rate slow, my breathing deepen, my mind settle.)

I’m delighted to be recording an edition of BBC Radio 4’s Food Programme about the book next week, which is provisionally slated for broadcast on Sunday 9th October. (More details to follow when confirmed.) And I’m doubly delighted that BBC Radio 4 have also picked up The Apple Orchard as Book of the Week, to be read out every morning w/c 5th December.

I’m nervous about this, my first book that has no link at all to beer or pubs (although cider is made and consumed in the later chapters). I hope that even if you’ve never really thought that much about apples – as I hadn’t until I first entered an orchard with a notebook in my hand – you’ll find this fascinating and diverting. The apple is a complicated, mysterious treasure hiding in plain sight and trying to look boring, and its history shines a different light on the history of humanity, and what we believe in.

 

The photos in this blog were taken by me primarily as aides memoire while I was writing. the book is not illustrated.
* The first of the three books I very stupidly signed up to write simultaneously was The Pub: A Cultural Institution, which was published in mid-August 2016. The third and final book is my journey through the nature of beer – an exploration of hops, barley, yeast and water. I submitted a complete first draft of this to my publisher two weeks ago. This is the one through Unbound, which uses rewards-based crowdfunding to cover publication costs before publishing books in the usual manner. The book is due out in May/June 2017, but subscribers will get their copes as soon as it’s back from the printers, which will probably be a couple of months earlier. Even though the book is fully funded, if you want to get a copy of it before publication as well as other rewards, you can still subscribe here.

| Beer, Beer Writing, BrewDog, IPA

When Michael met Stef and Martin

Trawling through old notebooks can yield unexpected treasures.

The new beer book I’m currently working on was initially inspired by a few experiences that I’d never properly written up and used.

Sometimes I’ll visit a brewery or go to an event and I’m inspired by it, taking pages of notes, and I’ll decide to write them up for one of my columns. A typical column is 700-800 words long, and while the column itself might be good, it only skates across the surface of the notes and observations I’ve made.

When I decided to write a book about hops, it was because I knew I had unused material that I’d gathered on a visit to the National Hop Collection in Kent, a jaunt to Slovenia to see the hop farms there, and a hazy account of Chmelfest, the hop blessing festival in the town of Zatec in the Czech Republic, home of the revered Saaz hop. I’d written up the National Hop Collection and Slovenia for short Publican’s Morning Advertiser columns, but I’d never known quite what to do with the Chmelfest notes. That’s where the idea for this book was born. About thirty seconds after deciding to use these three stories as the basis for a book about hops, I thought, ‘Why just hops?’ And What Are You Drinking? was born.

So now I’m deep into pulling the book together, writing up notes from trips over the last year and digging into my pile of old notebooks to find bits from over the last few years that also belong in this book.

I went to Chmelfest back in 2007, just as I was starting work on the first Cask Report and while I was trying to plan the sea voyage that would become my third book, Hops and Glory. So I dug into my pile of notebooks trying to find the one I’d been using in early 2007.

It turned out to be the same one I’d been using in late 2006 – number 6 in the stash of anally numbered notebooks I began when I first started travelling to write about beer. Chmelfest is about two thirds of the way through, and the notes are more intact and coherent than I have any right to expect. But near the front of the book, undated, is a short set of notes – just two pages – about a meeting between Michael Jackson and Stefano Cossi and Martin Dickie, who were then two young brewers at a new brewery called Thornbridge.

I remember this meeting taking place at the legendary White Horse pub in West London. I can’t remember why I was there, why I’d been invited, but the two brewers were sitting against the wall with Michael facing them across a table. I was sitting two seats down, watching, not daring to join in.

I remember being inspired by Michael that night, and later feeling lucky that I was there. A year on from this meeting Michael would be dead and Martin would have left Thornbridge to start up BrewDog. Martin has spoken often about what an inspiration the meeting was to him. It’s become part of BrewDog folklore, a key event in the origin story, which makes me feel weird that I’d been there as a silent observer.

The occasion was the launch of a new beer called Kipling. Michael thought it was interesting because it used a new hop called Nelson Sauvin which came from New Zealand, and no one had brewed in Britain using New Zealand hops before. (In my notes I wrote ‘Nelson Sauverne’, which is how it sounded when Martin said it.) Martin and Stef had encountered a sample of these hops and immediately ordered some in. They wanted to make a beer that celebrated their flavour, because they were already, according to my notes, ‘bringing in obscure US hops’ for beers like Jaipur.

In a demonstration of my stunning beer writing skills at the time, my tasting notes stretch to ‘grapefruit in the finished beer.’ I also wrote down ‘Fills in the gaps that are left by the flavour spikes in spicy, deep-fried spring rolls.’ I don’t know if I wrote this because that’s what the beer was paired with because I didn’t write any more detail about what we were eating and drinking. I may have been quoting someone. (Does anyone really think spring rolls have flavour spikes?)

I’ll spare you my clumsy notes about Thornbridge and my observations about its two young, moody brewers. The reason for sharing the reminiscence is the notes I made about Michael Jackson. I was paying more attention to him during the interview than I was to the two brewers.

I’m tempted to tidy up my notes and write them better. It’s a rubbish piece of writing, embarrassing in parts, but I wanted to share the sentiments it contains, so here it is quoted as I wrote it, unvarnished by later experience or hindsight:

Michael going on – interesting enough stories. Meeting some of these people is a bit special. He’s created this thing, still sees it w the novelty he genuinely discovered for the first time.

Gentle, warming method of questioning that draws the best out of his subject – “Why this beer?” “What did you think of the hop the first time you tasted it?”

It doesn’t seem like much, written up. But this was an absolute inspiration to a fledgling beer writer. The obvious passion, undimmed after thirty-odd years. And the focus on the people, how they felt, making it about them and getting the best from them. I remember sitting there thinking, “THIS is how you do it.”

I still think that. My own notes are better now.