Tag: a summer of too much beer

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Brew Dog London opens!

Blimey – a look at my Wikio ranking (if anyone still looks at Wikio rankings) shows what happens when you don’t blog for six weeks…

In case you’ve not been following, the reason I seem to have given up blogging is that I have to focus on my new book.  It’s going well: I’ve written about 45,000 words (about 140 pages) so far, but with a mid-January deadline I won’t be having much of a Christmas, and I won’t be blogging too often before it’s finished.

But I just wanted to do a quick post because I went to the journalist’s launch of Brew Dog’s new London bar last night in Camden, North London.

And it’s really just to reiterate what I said when I visited their Edinburgh bar in the summer, and express my delight that they’ve opened one a bit closer to my house.

No brewer divides opinion and stirs up as much controversy as Brew Dog.  And they do that deliberately.  Sometimes I write to slag off their childish pranks, sometimes to praise them.  About two years ago half the blogosphere was devoted to discussion of their antics (oh, and their beers) and I’ve read some people say they gave up reading blogs because they were sick of reading about Brew Dog.

But the company is four years old now and maturing rather nicely.  And the bars – which are starting to spread to many major UK cities – really are excellent.

Purists will be upset that they don’t do any cask beers at all, but this would be a good experiment: if you’re prepared to be open-minded, it’s worth going along and challenging the keg offering to deliver.  I think there’s something there for everyone.  Last night I was talking to someone who writes for London Drinker, CAMRA London’s magazine, and we were disagreeing about keg beer – he was saying he could still taste the gas in the beers he was drinking and that he didn’t like that and wished they were available on cask.  But later, he tried some of the stronger beers and came back to tell me they were excellent.

So there’s a great range on offer.  And the other thing I love about Brew Dog bars is that when I walk in, and I feel a little bit old and that the bar might be too cool for school, this is dispelled as soon as I actually get to the bar.  Brew Dog bars could so easily be too cool for school, and they’re not.  They’re unpretentious and run by people with a genuine passion for beer, a passion they want to spread.

Finally, I went here directly from a new ‘bar and kitchen’ (ugh!) run by a reasonably large pub operator, that’s moving with the times by stocking an interesting range of craft beers that will be familiar to geeks but you really don’t see in many places at all.  That’s to be welcomed.  But £4.25 for a pint of cask Meantime Pale Ale (4.2% ABV), brewed less then ten miles away, was taking the fucking piss.  By contrast, the prices at Brew Dog were perfectly reasonable for what you were getting.

Gotta leave it there – got to go and write about Princess Margaret and the Bishop of Southwark having a lock in.

But if you’re in London, go to Brew Dog Camden.  And of you’re not, don’t worry – a Brew Dog bar will probably be opening a bit closer to you sooner than you think.

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Do women need their own beer?

Alongside beer styles, craft beer, cask versus keg and other such burning issues, the notion of ‘beer for women’ reared its head again this week with Molson Coors’ launch of Animee, a new attempt to persuade the 79% of British women who don’t currently drink beer to start doing so.  I was at the launch on Monday night. So was Melissa Cole, who is true to form in her outspoken views on the subject here.  Sophie Atherton also weighed in on the Guardian blog here.

I agree with the gist of what both are saying, but not on every single point.  I also get a sort of itching in my brain when commenters who have not seen, smelled or tasted these products dismiss them as ‘piss’.  How do you know?  Even when I slag off something like Stella Black, I taste the damn stuff first.

I believe the launch of Animee is misguided and flawed, but there are some good points in there if you look hard enough.  I’ll sum this up in a list of positives and negatives, to make it easy.

The whole idea of a beer for women in the first place. It’s never worked, because it’s not what’s needed.  I’m not surprised Melissa feels patronised – I’d feel the same if someone tried to flog me a ‘wine for men’. As Melissa points out, women don’t want a product that segregates them – they just want a product that doesn’t actively alienate them.  Wine, cocktails, cider and premium spirits are neither masculine nor feminine, and they all seem to be doing just fine.  The only reason beer is overtly masculine is the long heritage of macho advertising in the UK – beer is far more unisex in other countries.  In Spain, 40% of total beer volume is drunk by women, and it’s mainstream lager, same as here.  (Nice mainstream lager though, it has to be said.)

The fact that Molson Coors are trying.  This was presented on Monday as part of a broader programme of ideas and initiatives to really promote beer across the board.  Molson Coors are a big multinational brewer who talk about beer in marketing speak (the subject of another piece). But I get the impression they do actually care about beer.  They show signs of understanding it, and respecting it.  Growing Sharps and Worthington are as much part of their plan as boosting Carling – which, by the way, also got a shout on Monday night.  A new 4.8% ‘premium’ version, Carling Chrome, is bland, pretty tasteless, but not watery and without the nasty aftertaste some of these beers have.  On the beer for women thing, they’ve spoken to tens of thousands of women and really got to the heart of what’s keeping them from beer.

Given all that research, I just don’t understand Animee as a response to it.  The main barriers are all about image – not the product.  So why launch a different product?  I find the beers that convert women who ‘don’t like’ beer tend to be very strongly flavoured – American IPAs or Imperial porters and stouts – because these women are currently drinking wine that has comparable characteristics.  I don’t see the need to launch a product that doesn’t actually look or taste like beer at all, and don’t understand how a product that doesn’t look or taste like beer, that has different language around it from beer (‘clear filtered’, ‘lemon’ and ‘rose’ anyone?) is going to attract women to drinking beer more generally.  It’s actually only beer because Molson Coors say it is – it’s not going to change anyone’s attitude to what ‘beer’ is or can be.  Any women who drink this will do so despite it being called beer.

It might not be beer, but actually I thought the product wasn’t bad.  It wasn’t remotely like beer, but I did enjoy it, especially the clear filtered one.  Light and refreshing, it would be a pleasant summer drink, an alternative to mainstream cider.  I also think the packaging, if you look at it for what it is, manages to be unisex and quite stylish, a few beers cues here and there, not too girly.  I know, I know, it’s in clear glass.  That is a marketing decision because – and I say this as someone who has done countless focus groups over the last 15 years – every single drinker who is not knowledgable enough about beer to know about light strike says they overwhelmingly prefer clear glass.  It just looks better, and for many drinkers, beer is about style over substance.  Of course I don’t agree with that or like it, but it’s true.

So overall, I suspect Animee will go the same way as all other attempts to market a beer specifically for women.  But I hope Molson Coors don’t give up.  I hope they will try some different strategies.  And I hope other big brewers will follow their example.  I also hope they will read the comments from the many women responding to Melissa’s and Sophie’s pieces saying there are beers for women, in the shape of cask ale.  And I also hope they will look very closely at this:

Project Venus is a collaboration between female brewers. On 28th July, Kathy Britton, of Oldershaw Brewery, Sara Barton of Brewster’s, Michelle Kelsall from Offbeat Brewery, Sophie de Ronde from Brentwood Brewing Company and Sue Hayward from The Waen Brewery will gather at Oldershaw’s to brew their second cask ale. The whole thing will be filmed by Marverine Cole, AKA Beer Beauty.

Of course Project Venus is tiny compared to Animee.  But I’d be fascinated to see a side-by-side tasting of the two, and see which women prefer.

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China, crap ads, good pubs and Depeche Mode – my recent trade press rants

I’m very chuffed to have secured two regular trade press columns this year: a fortnightly one in the newly merged Publican’s Morning Advertiser, now the only magazine for the UK pub trade, and a monthly one for www.Just-Drinks.com , the website for the global drinks industry.

Both these columns appear online and each time they do, I put a link to them on Twitter.  But not everyone reads Twitter, so here’s a brief summary of what I’ve been writing about recently, which you can read if you like.  They’re quite industry focused, but then, you might be too.  You don’t have to read them if you’re not.  You don’t have to read them at all.

[Update: It seems Just Drinks might require a subscription to read.  PMA definitely doesn’t].

I kicked off in Just Drinks by talking about what’s gone wrong with beer advertising, and why brewers want to make bogus claims for their products.

Next month, I wrote about the beer scene in China, and how Western brewers need to be careful setting up shop there.

After that, prompted by a Carlsberg relaunch, I wrote about why beer is different from other products if you’re trying to build global brands.

And last month, I railed against the dodgy practice by some brewers (well, one in particular) whereby if you’re an employee of the company, drinking someone else’s beer – even if you’re off the clock and on your own time – can be “a career-ending move”.

My latest rant – familiar to any long-term readers of this blog – will be about the factual fallacies of the neo-prohibitionists, and how the drinks industry is failing to combat them.  It should be up any day now.

Over at the PMA, concerns are a bit more UK-focused, and there’s room to occasionally be a touch more irreverent.  Not all my columns are available online but they’ve started putting them up over the last couple of months.  In the first one that’s up there, written just before the first UK beer bloggers conference, I tried to explain to the British pub industry why they need social media.

Following that, I wrote about the basic quality of pubs, and what hardcore beer drinkers really mean when they describe a pub as ‘the kind of place you could bring the wife’.

Next, I had a go at PubCo M&B for their ludicrous decision to boot out the tenants of the wildly successful Engineer in Primrose Hill, and also used it to say something about the way many of us approach issues in beer and pubs.

And then, I wrote a piece I really hope no one takes seriously – you never know – about the glory that is Tallinn’s Depeche Mode bar.

Finally, the PMA also asked me to compile my 50 favourite UK beers – that was the brief, so I was unable to include foreign beers.  I attempted to go as wide as possible, and include selections that would upset – sorry, delight – as many people as possible.

Hope there’s something you enjoy. If there’s anything, global or local, you think I should be covering in these columns, please drop me a line.

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Bombardier Beer Writing Competition winning entry: The Stonemason’s Tale

Not much time to blog at the moment – sorry about that.  Too much paid writing (although there’s never too much paid writing) and helping the Beer Widow organise this year’s Stoke Newington Literary Festival.

Biggest apology goes to the Milton Crawford, winner of the Oxford Brookes/Bombardier Beer Writing Competition.  I announced that he was the winner a month ago, and haven’t yet published his excellent winning piece, so I must do so now.

There are two reasons for the delay: about 75% of the blame is for me because I’m too busy and disorganised.  25% is because I was waiting to see if we could get the essay published first in a national newspaper or magazine.  Charles Campion was looking after this.  He’s infinitely more well-connected than I am, way more charming and much more respected.  Yet even he met with a brick wall when trying to persuade people to publish something about beer.  One food and drink magazine even went so far as to say, “We like it, it’s a very well written piece, but we do not publish features on beer, we just do wine.”  How a food and drink magazine can say this categorically about any food and drink – how it can be not just an attitude or preference, but a publishing policy decision – is beyond me.  But that rant is for another post.

I’m proud that I can publish here a piece of writing you can’t see in the national press – they don’t deserve it.

Congrats again, Milton.

By Milton Crawford

‘You’re drinking that like water,’ I said with a laugh as I stood at the bar and watched my friend George glug the top half of his deep auburn pint in one indulgent guzzle. A shaft of low sunlight caught his glass as it reached the horizontal in front of his mouth. There was a flash of red and gold. I watched his throat work hard, swallowing the liquid in rhythmical gulps, before he placed his glass down on the bar with emphasis and gave a long gasp of satisfaction. The liquid in the glass slopped about slightly like a gentle swell in the English Channel on a serene summer’s day.

‘It’s funny you should say that,’ he said, once he had sucked some air into his lungs. ‘A friend of mine was remarking just the other day how in medieval times every man in this country drank beer instead of water because the water could not be trusted. I knew that already, in fact, but what surprised me was the amount that they drank.’

He wiped the back of his hand across his brow and swept his long blonde ringlets from his forehead. His hair was damp and darkened around his temples as he tucked the dry ringlets behind his ears. It was the first really warm day of the year and as the sun dipped and cast long shadows across the stone-flagged floor, and the air outside began to cool slightly, it remained warm and sticky inside our village pub. There was a hum of conversation from around the low-ceilinged room and the cries of playing children and barking dogs shimmered in on the warm air. George placed his large, rough hands on the edge of the bar and leaned his weight slightly against them as though he was trying to move the bar backwards an inch or two. He was a stonemason with powerful arms and shoulders and I believed that if he tried he probably could move the bar if he really wanted to. The landlord – a tall, slim fellow with a long neck and glasses – leaned his right forearm on top of the pumps and listened. George liked to tell a story.

‘A man would be drinking beer from when he woke in the morning to when he went to bed at night. He’d have half-a-pint for breakfast, a couple of pints through the morning, three or four in the afternoon, when he was hot from working, and then, in the evening, another three or four with his friends.’

‘Sounds like old Roger,’ chimed in the landlord with a chuckle, ‘he’d be in ‘ere every day for a breakfast pint if I let him in.’

George looked directly into the sun and took another gulp from his glass.

‘Nine pints,’ he said, turning to us again with his face that looked like it too had been roughly chiselled from stone. ‘That was what the average medieval man drank every day of his life. I suppose that would be quite weak ale, but you must admit, that’s a fair amount of beer. When my friend told me that, I tried to think what the life of a stonemason might have been like in the middle ages. I certainly wouldn’t fancy cutting stone – and especially not lifting it – after a few pints.

‘I often think of those times when I’m on the marshes at the edge of the village and I gaze across to the city. The cathedral spire is staggering to us now. But just think what it must have been like to the people who lived when it was built. Those people would only have seen one or two storey buildings their whole lives, and then this spire – this one-hundred and twenty-metre pinnacle of stone – pierces the sky and aims up to heaven like an enormous javelin. Can you imagine how awestruck those people must have been?

‘The main body of the cathedral took thirty-eight years to build. That’s a man’s entire working life now and back then, by the time he’d finished, he wouldn’t just be ready to retire, he’d be just about ready to die!’

George laughed and lifted his glass once more, draining it entirely.

‘You fancy another?’ he asked me.

I supped up.

‘I’ll get these,’ I said. The landlord soundlessly picked up our glasses and pulled back on the hand pump. I heard the ale hit the bottom of the glass and froth slightly.

‘Imagine if I had been told,’ continued George, ‘when I was an apprentice in my late teens, that I would be working on the same building for my entire life. I’d be about halfway through it right now. Of course, you’d be proud of playing a part in such a towering achievement as a cathedral, but I’m glad I have the variety of work that I do. You see, there’s plenty of differences between how people lived then and how they live now; a lot of similarities, too, but a lot more differences.’

The two fresh pints were served to us and we both took greedy mouthfuls of the cool ale.

‘One of the main differences, I think,’ George said, ‘is that there was more of what you’d call a community then. For one thing, people didn’t have cars or much other form of transport. They couldn’t drive off somewhere when they felt like it. They were stuck in their village and they had to get along with the people who lived around them. There was also no such thing as television or cinema or radio or the internet. What did people have for entertainment? Each other, of course; and beer!

‘When I imagine how the villagers worked back then, I think of how the fields would have been full of people having to dig the earth by hand. All the time they would have talked to each other as they worked. At the site of the cathedral there would have been hundreds of them working together with no mechanical noise other than the sound of hammers and chisels. The stonemasons would have been chiselling and chatting away at the same time. Conversation gets drowned out these days. On building sites there is the constant din of machinery. In the fields, there is no need for lots of people, because the farmer has his tractor and chemicals to do all the work for him. Instead of talking to each other we turn on the TV. We call people our “friends” on the internet but they’re people we haven’t seen or spoken to for twenty years.

‘But there are still places that you can go to feel part of a community. I’m not a religious man but I’ve heard that church-goers live longer because they have the feeling of belonging. “Churches are social glue” someone said to me once. Well, I like to think the same of pubs and I reckon someone should do a study on the positive health effects of going to the pub. All you hear about is bad things about drinking but for me the pub is the only place I can go to tell a story and hear other people tell stories. It gives me an opportunity for companionship. It’s a place where I feel the warmth of my fellow men – and women – rather than watching on the news about another murder or atrocity or war.

‘For this reason I say that beer is as essential to me as water. But it’s not really the beer itself. Of course I love drinking, but I value above that the social element of going to the pub. Human beings need all kinds of nourishment. We need food, sleep and shelter. But we also need to feel part of something that is bigger than us. We scoff at the middle ages. We laugh at how ignorant and filthy the people must have been then. But just think: that cathedral is still standing and how many buildings that are being built now will still be standing in eight hundred years’ time? We can learn a lot from them if we stop and think about it a little.’

‘Like how to drink nine pints every day?’ asked the landlord.

‘Well,’ said George, with a poker-face, ‘at least I can feel happy when I leave here, having drunk four or five, maybe, that I’ve got a comfortable bed to lie in whereas medieval man probably had to drink nine pints just so he could get to sleep on his straw mattress!’

The landlord laughed and George smiled once more. And as the dying sun sent its red-orange glow through the stone mullioned windows of the pub for the final time, his face was illuminated and looked to me at that instant like a westward facing sea cliff when the sun seems to falter slightly, then finally dips below the horizon.

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Champagne beers: they’re lovely!

It strikes me that, for a beer blog, I don’t actually write much specifically about beer itself on here. Partly that’s a conscious decision – there are roughly a gazillion blogs providing reviews and analysis of favourite beers and I’m not sure we need another one.

But hey, it’s a beer blog.  The reason we’re here is that we enjoy drinking beer.  And every so often, beers come up that are too remarkable not to comment on.

I’ve always loved ‘champagne beers’.  Up to now there have been too few of them to attempt anything so anal as defining the ‘style’, and I’d resist that even now, because I think the inspiration of champagne, the selective application of some champagne ingredients and/or processes, signals a creative approach that combines classiness and elegance with a wonderfully liberating playfulness, and I would resist at all costs attempts to stifle that with anything so boring as a style guide.

But there are certainly enough of them around now – all different – to suggest, if not a style, than a loose coalition, a movement, a trend.

The first one on most people’s radar was Deus, still magnificent, a Belgian Tripel matured with champagne yeast in champagne caves, using the traditional methods of remuage and degorgement, where during secondary fermentation, the bottles are turned and angled so the yeast collects in the neck, where it can be frozen and extracted.

Simpler – in both process and flavour – is Kasteel Cru.  This is simply a lager fermented with champagne yeast, and while as such it’s easy to dismiss, it has some merit – it’s light, spritzy and has a grapey hint, a great aperitif that prompts re-evaluation among people who ‘don’t like beer’.

There are other Belgians who have followed Deus’ lead, most notably (for me) Malheur Brut, which is possibly even better than Deus.

But I’ve recently been given three new champagne(style) beers in quick succession, and they each make me very happy indeed.  In no particular order…

Infinium, by Samuel Adams and Weihenstephan

Roll up! Roll up!

Samuel Adams is a brewery that understands the value of special, premium packaging, but can sometimes err into gaudy rather than premium.  This one stays on the right side of the line, but only just – with the result that it looks magnificent – like it was created by some insane genius who lives within a travelling funfair invented by Terry Gilliam.  Whether your initial reaction to the following image is a laugh or gasp probably reveals something deep about your psyche:

Brewers by appointment to Dr Parnassus

But what about the beer?

The press release is full of superlatives.  German Weihenstephan is ‘the world’s oldest brewery’, and this collaboration has ‘shattered industry preconceptions of the limits of the German purity laws’, by remaining faithfully within those laws to produce a beer that’s 10.5% ABV that will be in ‘selected outlets for discerning consumers prepared to pay vintage champagne-style prices.’

I was lucky enough to be sent a bottle.  It made me want to wait for a special occasion to open it, but I couldn’t – I gave in, celebrating the fact that I was at home for once on a Sunday (the Beer Widow would argue that this is an event rare enough to celebrate with vintage Krug.)

It pours an amazing, alluring bronze colour, beautiful and rich.

It has complex nose of caramel, that biscuity vintage champagne aroma, with a hint of sherry sweetness. It’s one of those rare, special beers where you enjoy nosing it so much, you almost forget to drink it.

You should though.

On the palate there’s banana, lemon, caramel, perfectly judged winter spices and a brief, intense sweetness before a nice champagne-like dryness and a hint of earthiness at the back.

It’s classy, elegant and sophisticated, yet fuller and bolder than other champagne beers I’ve had.  It’s available in a mere two outlets in the UK: Vino Wines in Edinburgh, and Inspire, a cafe bar in Coventry.  Utterly random, but there you go.  More info is available from Branded Drinks.

Bowland Artisan Gold
If the location for an artisanal champagne beer surprises you, the quality of that beer will surprise you further still.  Bowland is a microbrewery some miles north of Burnley, Lancashire, which has been doing a good job of crafting quality ales since 2003 (its Admiral Best Bitter was named Champion Best Bitter of Britain in the recent SIBA awards, and I reviewed it on the Vlog from those awards).

Bowland brewer Richard Baker decided the only way he could absolutely guarantee perfect beer time after time would be to produce a top quality bottled beer.  He wanted to use bottle conditioning, but didn’t want to leave a sediment – and that made him think of champagne-style secondary fermentation.  Baker studied champagne methods in depth and reproduced them as closely as he was able, and this is the result:

You want premium?  You got premium

It’s a remarkable beer.  It has all the refinement and complexity of any other champagne beer – though perhaps not the dense layers of flavour – at a low (for champagne beer) ABV of 5.7%.  I’m afraid I didn’t make too many tasting notes on this one, just lots of adjectives like ‘classy’ and ‘elegant’.  The mix of noble and new world hops gives it a lot of fruit, but it’s held in check by a smooth dryness.  I felt I was wasting it, enjoying it in front of the TV with a bowl of pasta, and I was very sad indeed when I finished the bottle, because it’s very quaffable despite (or probably because of) its structure and complexity.


Richard Baker told me, “I am hoping that Artisan Gold will help to open up the minds of people in Britain to the fact that beer is not just for swilling down in back street pubs up North (although there’s nowt wrong with that!) but that there are craft brewers all over the country producing a wide range of beers that we should be massively proud of and that there really is a beer for everyone if they just opened themselves up and gave it a try.”
It should certainly work.  Served in a glass like the one above, it’s one of those beguiling drinks you can’t pin down into a category.  You may not even be certain it’s a beer at all.
Artisan Gold is available only from Northcote Manor – the Michelin-starred restaurant a few miles from the brewery – the brewery itself, and the online shop, where you can buy it mail order for £15.99.  
The price tag made me hesitate, and that made me think – I’d pay that happily for Deus, at 11.5% ABV, but was hesitant here because the beer is only 5.7%.  Fascinating, because I don’t know about you, but I like to think I’m above paying for alcohol units, that for me, it’s all about the quality of the beer.  I always bang on about how quality is not necessarily linked to ABV.  With Artisan Gold, you’re paying for the time, the care and attention, the method, and the experience of a beer that is easily worth the price tag.  It may require you to overcome a prejudice you may not even have been sure you had, but it’s worth the effort.

Chapel Down Curious Brew Brut

This isn’t quite the same deal as the previous two. But I include it here to show the breadth of champagne(style) beers.

By the standards of Infinium and Artisan Gold it’s more of an everyday drink.  But by the standards of draught lager – which is how we should be judging it – it’s just as special as the previous two.

Chapel Down is one of the leading English wineries, based in Kent.  Their wines are seriously good, and if your experience of English wine stretches as far as fruit wines that are half a step away from home brew, you need to shift your frame of reference south, to the Loire valley and the champagne region – Kent has a similar climate and terroir, and Chapel Down wines easily stand alongside their French cousins.

The thing is, the MD of Chapel Wines is a former beer man, having worked for Whitbread and Heineken (full disclaimer: he’s an ex-client and current friend of mine) and he’s been dabbling for a few years with getting winemakers to approach beer with a wine sensibility.  Bottled Curious Brew Brut, Admiral Porter and Cobb IPA are all well worth seeking out, each with a winey twist.  Now, Brut has been revamped and launched around Kent on draught.

It’s a premium strength lager, lagered for a decent length of time, and brewed with sparkling wine yeast.  As such it’s along similar lines to Kasteel Cru, but the end result is quite different.  It’s a fuller, more assertive beer, more fruity and rounded, that grapey sweetness getting a much bigger stage to show off on, but still reined in at the end by a crisp dryness.  Refreshing and satisfying, the true test of it is that it feels vulgar drinking it from a pint, as I first did.  Get it in the correct half pint glass, and it’s a lovely halfway house between beer and sparkling wine in every way, and proved to be the perfect aperitif before dinner at the winery’s excellent restaurant last weekend.

It’s currently brewed by Hepworth’s, who do a lot of contract brewing, but Chapel Down is considering commissioning its own brewery alongside the winery just outside Tenterden.  If the current sales growth continues, that should be happening pretty soon.

So, that’s some seriously fancy drinking right there.  And I’ve just remembered why I don’t write as many beer reviews as I should.  It’s 12.19, and I’m now gasping for a beer…

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2010: What the blazes was all THAT about? (Part one)

It’s that time of year again.  As the post-Christmas hangover turns into a week of bleary limbo dreamtime and the whole country forgets what day it is, and beer bloggers turn from listing obsessively every beer they drank on Christmas Day to listing obsessively everything from their Favourite New World Hop of the Year to their Favourite International Collaboration Between Brewers of Between 500 and 3000 Barrels Output Per Year Featuring Russian Oak Barrel Ageing And Resulting In a Beer of 60 IBUS or Above.
I first did a review of the year two years ago, partly because I thought it would be a bit of fun and partly to reflect on broad trends in brewing and pubs.  I repeated the exercise last year and found myself just one of scores of bloggers listing their favourite brewers, favourite beers etc. 
This year, with the Golden Pint Awards, it all seems to have got a bit serious and standardized and regulated and defined, like many things in the beer blogosphere.  I congratulate and support everyone who lists their year’s highs and lows, I offer my piss-take above in good spirit, and I hope you have a good time doing it – it’s great for everyone to be able to compare notes.  It’s just not for me.
So this year I’ve taken a broad sweep in trying to summarise the year in beer.  I’ve invented category titles to fit what I want to write about.  It’s a mix of pure self-indulgence and commentary upon the state of the industry, with the odd great beer thrown in – which kind of sums up my blog. 
The beer blogosphere is expanding so rapidly, evolving so quickly, and becoming so much more intense, I honestly don’t know what or how I should be blogging any more.  Most bloggers don’t worry about that – the whole point of blogging is writing what you want, with no editorial constraints.  So that’s what I’m going to do.
Part one today – the most self-indulgent part.  Part two tomorrow, and thoughts on 2011 Thursday or Friday, if you’re interested. 

“What the fuck was that wooshing past” sensation of the year: Beer Writer of the Year 2009

As I said at the Guild dinner this year, it didn’t feel like a year – that’s because it wasn’t, it was only 51 weeks.  
But it felt like ten.  
I worked for about five years towards winning the BWOTY award.  It’s not like it was the only reason for writing or anything like that, but this is now my chosen career and so I wanted to be recognized as being at the top of the game.  After the work that went into Hops & Glory, winning was more a relief than anything else – I knew it was the best I could do.  If I hadn’t won with that, I doubted I ever would win. 
After I won, I realized I’d been so focused on winning, I had no idea what to do afterwards.  What can or should a beer writer of the year actually do?  
I had hoped I’d be able to be a bit of an ambassador for good beer to the broader world.  Having the title certainly opened some doors and got me some opportunities I wouldn’t have had otherwise, but it failed to get me the presence in national press that I and so many other beer writers still crave. Between us we have had more press opportunities in 2010 certainly than I’ve had before.  But we’re still lacking that big breakthrough.  Newspapers like the Guardian and associated weekend magazines enjoy a significant proportion of good beer fans among their readership, but seem almost ideologically opposed to allowing regular beer coverage in their pages.  Same with TV shows like Saturday Kitchen
I’ve enjoyed and been very humbled by the recognition I now get within the beer world.  But I’ve been just as frustrated by my inability to spread the beer word beyond the already converted.  It’s a long job.  We’re not giving up yet.  But by the time I was handing the title over, it felt like I was only just getting started.  
Happily, after reading through a record number of entries (there are so many of us writing about beer) I passed the title to someone who is very successfully spreading the word about great beer and great pubs to the broader public – Simon Jenkins.

Personal warm glow of the year: The Beer Trilogy

We all judge books by their covers, and we never quite got it right with my first two.  The paperback release of Hops and Glory gave me the opportunity to repackage Man Walks into a Pub and Three Sheets to the Wind, and the chance to heavily rewrite the former to bring it up to date and also get rid of all the factual inaccuracies and repetition of received myth that characterized the first edition.  I’m very, very proud of the reworked edition of my first book – there’s a lot of new stuff in it.  But I still haven’t found anyone who’s actually read the revised edition.
But it has worked – each of the first two books sold double what it did last year, and Hops paperback has sold well too.  
This is partly due to another endless round of book events – talks, tastings and so on, the highlights of which were selling a 250-capacity venue at the Edinburgh International Book Festival and another almost as big at the Ilkley Literary Festival, at which my old English Lit teacher, whom I haven’t seen for 25 years, loomed up out of the crowd.  If we weren’t both Yorkshiremen, we’d have been blubbing like babies.  We almost did. 
These highlights gave me the strength to shrug off the crushing sense of doom and despair when a mere six people turned up at the Notting Hill Travel Bookshop in October, and only two turned up to my final event in Sheffield last week.
I’m now seemingly doing a permanently ongoing round of after-dinner speeches, literary festivals, food festivals and private/corporate tastings – a whole new side to my strange career.  That’s the thing about beer.  It’s never dull, always evolving.

Heroes of the year: How many do you want?

Ron Pattinson for his obsessive historical quest.  I’ve read and used some of what he endlessly quotes, and I’ve read some stuff he hasn’t.  But I could never imagine attacking old brewing records with the gusto he does.  God knows why he does it.  But he’s built up an essential beer history resource.
Fuller’s – who among their multi-pronged approach to examining the relationship between beer and age, did a collaborative brew with Ron and their own past.
Andy Moffatt at Redemption, officially the nicest man in brewing, a man who simply will not let you buy a drink, and then turned up to my Christmas Party with a barrel of London Brewer’s Alliance Porter (more on London Brewers later).
Garrett Oliver.  Thornbridge.  The insane Jamie Hawksworth of the Sheffield and Euston Taps.  The new wave of Czech craft brewers like Matuska.  Stuart Howe at Sharp’s for a commitment to invention that’s made it into the national press.  And everyone who is brewing so much good and interesting beer, I’ve given up even trying to keep track.

More tomorrow.  (This may actually be a three-parter.)

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The Two Peters venture into the world of video blogging

Peter Amor is a very nice man.  25 years ago he set up the Wye Valley Brewery, which brews some very nice beers indeed.  Earler this year, once the silver jubilee celebrations had died down, he decided he wanted to give something back to the industry he´d built his livelihood on.  He wanted to do something to help celebrate British beer.

Ian Hudson, a former brewery employee, had by this time set up a film production conmpany.  So Ian and Peter started talking, then contacted me with a view to making some kind of film that sang the praises of British beer.

After kicking a few ideas around, we decided to start off by making a series of video blogs.  Once a month, we will be filming in a particular region of the UK, to produce monthly pairs of blogs.  I believe (though I may be wrong) that these represent a bit of a depatrture for V-Blogging in that they´re made with a full film crew and hopefully therefore have a veneer of professionalism to them. 

They´re not necessarily aimed at a beer geek audience but at a more general public, and we´re exploring ways to give them a wider reach in an age where TV channels won´t commission many serious content about beer.  So if you´re a fellow beer blogger and you´re thinking ´this is rally basic stuff´ – fine, but it´s not basic to most people.  The featured beers will be limited to cask ales, because that´s what Peter´s passionate about and he´s paying the bills.  But in today´s brewing scene, limiting it to cask is hardly a hardship.     

My bit is easy.  I have to select a few beers from that region, drink them, and talk about them on camera.  We decided to do the first one from Nottingham, home of the 2010 Champion Beer of Britain, Harvest Pale.  Here are the results.  Apart from convincing me of the urgent need for a diet, I´m quite pleased. 

Pete Brown’s British Beer Blog from Ian Hudson Films on Vimeo.

Mr Amor has a harder task.  He has to explain the history and production of beer, the ingredients and the process. Here´s his first one.

Peter Amor’s British Brewing Blog from Ian Hudson Films on Vimeo.

We´re quite pleased with the results for a first go.  Next month we´re in Wales.  If you think we should come and see you, let me know!

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Raise a glass to St David’s Day

Why do we think it’s still acceptable to take the piss out of the Welsh in a way that’s no longer acceptable with any other nation?

OK, I’ll admit they talk a bit funny, and maybe we don’t have the same sense of them being a nation that we do with the Scots and Irish, who both fought more robustly to avoid being absorbed by England than their south-westerly Celtic cousins. ‘England and Wales’ is still often said on one breath even in this devolutionary age where Scotland has regained a considerable measure of national pride and identity.

But I love Wales. I mean, just look at it:

The fact that The Beer Widow is a closet Taff has a lot to do with that (you’d never guess to hear her talk, unless you make her really mad and really drunk at the same time) but I hope to divide my time between South Wales and London to an increasing extent. It’s stunning scenery in the valleys, the kind you drink in. The pubs around Abergavenny are some of the best I’ve ever been to, delivering the quality you’d expect from a gastropub with none of the pretension. And the Abergavenny Food Festival is one of the culinary highlights of my year.

I did two talks/tutored tastings at last year’s festival. I got a kick out of the fact that they both sold out a month or so in advance, when tickets for other events were still available on the day. OK, so one of those was an audience with Michael Winner so it’s not fair to compare, but still.
One of my events was a tasting of locally brewed beers. Four years ago, when I was commissioned by the Mail on Sunday to do a piece on micros across Britain, I had trouble finding many breweries in Wales to talk about. I had Breconshire Brewery, and that was pretty much it. There’s no such problem now.
As with any region of the country, when I was selecting beers for the tasting I found several that were so bad I had to pour down the sink, but the good ones were sublime.
Otley is one of the most exciting breweries in the country. Founder and brewer Nick Otley shares the vision of peers like Dark Star and Thornbridge, always asking ‘What If…’, always giving trad beer styles a new and unique twist, and his branding is arguably the best in small-scale British brewing:
At the tasting we had O-Garden – yes, a Belgian-style wheat beer – and Columb-O, a 4% golden ale for which Nick bought up the entire UK supply of Columbus hops to create one of those peachy, zingy beers that makes you a bit giddy when you first taste it. At the end of the tasting we had to clear out so the next talk could set up, and we were dawdling, going “Hang on, I think there’s just a bit more left in the pin,” desperate not to leave any behind.
Otley also runs a mail order business supplying other Welsh beers, and he very kindly gave me a few other beers for the event.
Purple Moose is probably the most celebrated Welsh brewery right now, at least in terms of awards. I found their beers to be expertly made, nothing wrong with them at all, but I should have tasted them before the Otley beers. Nice pale ales, crisp and flavoursome, and maybe it was unfair of me to expect more than that, but with the hype and the funky name and branding, I kind of did.
Kingstone is a farmhouse brewery in Tintern who’d caught my attention the year before with 1503 – an ale based on a recipe from that year. Unfortunately I’ve had one or two dodgy bottles recently from shops, but on the day it didn’t disappoint – dark and carmelly, with that lovely sweet spot where hops and malt meet and synthesise in a rich fruitiness. (Kingstone also helped out the following day after Fedex played a game of football with the Jaipur intended for my IPA tasting, donating the festival stock of their IPA). They’ve got a fantastic and intriguing bottled range, nothing too wacky but very solid.
Breconshire kind of dominates the Welsh brewing scene now. Head Brewer Buster Grant is a striking figure, tall with a Victorian-size beard and often sporting a kilt. His beers are subtle – they make you work a bit before revealing their strengths, but it’s well worth the effort. He takes classic styles and tweaks them a little – a best bitter that’s paler than a golden ale (Cribyn, 4.5%), an old ale that has sherry notes and ages nicely despite being only 5% (Rambler’s Ruin), and a stunning stout made with peated malt that delivers the flavour profile of a whisky aged beer without pinning you to the ground and punching you repeatedly in the face with it (Night Beacon, 4.5%). These are beers that knock politely and ask if they can come in, before revealing themselves to be more than you first took them for.
My one big regret at the Festival was that I didn’t feature anything from the Tudor Brewery. This is a new operation in the heart of Abergavenny, a brew pub in the Kings Arms, a delightful, ancient pub with rooms and food that punches above its weight. When the brewery opened I tried to like the beers. I tried so hard. But they simply weren’t very good, so I didn’t put them into the tasting. And then, afterwards, I found out they had a new brewer who’d had a bit of help and completely turned them around. If you see Skirrid, Sugarloaf and Blorenge – named after the mountains that overlook Abergavenny – please give them a go. They’re well worth it, especially the slightly spiced toffee warmth of the Sugarloaf.
Apart from it being St David’s Day, and the fact that it’s easy to overlook Welsh beers, and that have been meaning to write about Abergavenny for months, the other reason for posting this today is that there’s a Welsh Beer Festival on down at the Rake this week. We went down yesterday, attending a tasting of Breconshire beers by Buster – including the excellent Rambler’s Ruin and Night Beacon.
Then we shared a couple of pints with Nick Otley, who talked us through O Rosie (blonde ale brewed with rosemary ) and Motley Brew, the full-on IPA brewed with Glyn from the Rake. It’s a beer that stops you in your tracks and makes you see the wisdom of ordering halves. It’s pretty much Glyn’s favourite beer. I mean, it would be, but after doing it as a one off, there is now talk of it being made a permanent Otley beer and rightly so.
If you’re anywhere near London the Welshfest worth checking out – the decking area is full of racked beers, I reckon there’s over 20 on in total.
So, Wales then. The country is about the same size as Belgium. And while chances of it competing with the continental surrealists in beer terms remain remote, in beer – as in so much else these days – when you start to scratch the surface, it has a burgeoning beer culture all of its own – a distinctively Welsh beer culture.
Lots occurin’.

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I remember when it were all fields round here

Wading through mud at the moment trying to finish off the rewrites for the new edition of Man Walks into a Pub, due out 4th June with a spanking new cover from the fella who did Hops & Glory. Making up the trilogy with the H&G paperback will be a newly covered Three Sheets, which isn’t changing apart from that cover, but it’s lovely to see them all together looking like a set – my beer trilogy. It makes me feel like a proper grown-up writer.

I had lunch yesterday with someone I knew from the beer world before I’d had a single word published, and it made me think how rapidly everything has changed – when we knew each other I was working full-time in an ad agency, Stella Artois was widely respected as a quality beer and in double digit growth, Progressive Beer Duty didn’t exist so, therefore, neither did the British craft brewing revolution. Cask ale was in terminal decline and seemingly drunk by no one under 50. CAMRA had half the membership it does now and the mere thought of them as an organisation and the terrible image they were giving beer at the time made me seethe with rage and frustration – as did the fact that not a single beer writer seemed to criticise them in print.
Google was new, and most of us accessed it via a dial-up modem. Around the time I finally finished my first manuscript of MWIAP, I was in a meeting with someone who had a laptop on his desk that wasn’t plugged into anything. Nevertheless, at one point he said “I’ll just print that” and pressed some buttons. Christ, I thought, he’s pretending to print something. Why would he do that?
It was only when he returned with the printed document that I realised I’d just seen wireless networking for the first time. This was 2002. 18 months before, I’d read a cyberpunk thriller centred around the (fictitious, impossible) idea.
Christ, I sound like an old fart. But this is my point – it only seems like five minutes ago really. I still think of myself most of the time as a new kid on the beer writing block. It’s disorientating when I get a brief glimpse of self-awareness that I might be one of the old guard.
Do I feel like an old fart?
Well, today I had a quick look at Twitter and my blog roll – I’m trying to ration myself while I get this bloody book finished – and in the middle of overhauling some very outdated text I was struck by the sheer scale of what’s happening in beer now, loving it and at the same time feeling slightly panicked by the fact that, as Beer Writer of the Year, I should be somehow attempting to keep on top of everything and have a comment on everything, and that is utterly impossible now.
So I’m surprised to find that I have no view one way or the other on the wisdom of Brew Dog’s latest venture: I’d like to taste a 41% IPA and think it’s a fresh departure for super-strong beers, but I still had to roll my eyes when it was announced. I think Sink the Bismarck is a shit and self-indulgent name for the beer, but at the same time I really struggle to work up any moral outrage at making fun of the Germans and referencing the war.
I fins myself applauding Cooking Lager’s lout ticking post, but have no new comment to make on the whole ticking issue.
And on the neoprohibition stuff, I’m delighted to see Phil Mellows continuing to bring some excellent new findings and developments to light, but have to curtail myself from spending another entire month digging into the issue.
There are so many people writing about these things now, and they’re all worthy of coverage. So I’m not complaining – I’m just a bit overwhelmed at how much the collision of craft beer passion and new media has generated and wondering – both from a beer worlds and a personal point of view – where do we go next?
In the short term – back to revising chapter ten – the one that slagged off CAMRA…