Tag: Beer writing

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We’ve got to acc-en-tu-ate the positive

Sorry – really long post – really big topic.
I’ve seen lots of conversations recently that all come together around a central theme that is, to my mind at least, one of the key themes for beer this year.  Namely this: factionalism and blind prejudice – on various sides – is threatening to kill, or at least stall, the beer revolution.
The people’s front of Judea and the popular Judean people’s front.  Or is it the other way round?
It first struck me when Martyn Cornell expressed his dismay that seven of the supposed ten best beers in the world are Imperial Stouts, which began a war of indignation that has currently run to almost 150 comments on his blog.  Then, after my recent posting on a very good-natured and enjoyable beer versus wine matching dinner, Cooking Lager temporarily dropped his comedy mask to make the very good observation that in wine, you never hear people promoting good wine by slagging off cheap wine.  And, last week, I was talking to Zak Avery about my growing concern over negativity in the beer scene, and he said, ‘wait till you see my next column’.  Zak published his thoughts on the subject yesterday, arguing for more inclusivity and tolerance.
As Zak says, the passion that people have for beer can only be a good thing, and I would never want to deter anyone from expressing their passion.  I’d just ask you to think about the way in which you express it (and by the way, I’m not exempting myself here – I’ve been guilty too).
When I first started writing about beer, I was infuriated by CAMRA because it was the only voice in the UK championing good beer, and it did so in a way that I felt was blinkered, bigoted, and downright insulting to beer drinkers who were not already part of the club.  CAMRA-friendly beer writers would not only dismiss mainstream beers as ‘industrial yellow fizz’, but also their drinkers as brainwashed morons.  It was only half a step away from the nasty abuse of ‘chavs’ or ‘pikeys’ under which class prejudice hides today – sometimes not even that far.
CAMRA has since changed and become more open, and has seen its membership double.  I think the two are not unrelated.  (From now on, I’m going to refer to the rump of unreconstructed CAMRA diehards who hate anything new or different as Old CAMRA, to differentiate them from the broader-minded but still real ale-loving mainstream CAMRA).
But CAMRA is no longer the only voice championing good beer.  We now have what Zak refers to as the ‘crafterati’ – beer bloggers and other vocal drinkers who champion great beers from or influenced by the North American brewing scene.  I’d like to believe I was among the first of these in the UK.  But now I look at what Martyn calls ‘the extremophiles’, and I’m seeing a similar unpleasant snobbery to that of CAMRA ten years ago – just coming from a different direction. Where the rump of Old CAMRA members still dismiss even quality Czech and German lagers as ‘yellow fizz’, the extremophiles similarly deride ‘Boring Brown Beer’.  Each dismisses vast swathes of beer, denigrating perfectly good brews simply because they are not of the style they prefer.
Old CAMRA and the extremophiles do at least agree on one thing – that any beer brewed by a big brewery must be shit.  In the US, the definition of Craft Beer hinges on the size of the brewery rather than the ingredients and processes used, or the passion of the brewer.  Over here, Old CAMRA now forgets that it was regional brewers like Young’s and Greene King who kept real ale alive long enough for the micros to arrive, casting them in the role of evil big brewers oppressing the micros, while extremophiles dismiss their beers as hopelessly square and bland.
All of this is childish, and ultimately damaging for beer – all beer.
I just got back from the SIBA conference, where one of the prevailing attitudes was inclusivity about what makes good beer.  During the closing panel session, Roger Protz cut an increasingly isolated figure as he defended CAMRA’s stance on only promoting cask ale.  One minute he said CAMRA could only ever promote real ale because that is what it is for, suggesting that this forty year-old body is simply incapable of changing to reflect changing times. The next minute he boasted that CAMRA had proudly defended Budvar for twenty years.  The brewers of quality British lager – some brewed locally – who were in the room were left scratching their heads as to why CAMRA could promote a foreign quality lager but not a British one.  Roger confessed to enjoying some quality keg products and exhorted fans of them to form a campaign for keg ale.  But in doing so he missed the whole point – it’s not about cask or keg.  It’s now about a broader championing of good beer in an age where method of dispense is no longer the key differentiator of quality.  The audience – comprising mainly of cask ale brewers – was then asked if they thought CAMRA should broaden its remit.  A show of hands revealed roughly 80% believed CAMRA should – and I repeat, these are brewers of cask ale.  Roger said he was ‘horrified’ by this result.
At the other end of the scale, we had a Guild of Beer Writers meeting last week, and after the meeting, we all enjoyed pints of Gales Seafarers, Adnams Bitter and London Pride.  These beers were perfectly kept, wonderfully tasty, but some of us who might be counted as ‘crafterati’ (me included) felt a need to justify or at least comment upon the fact that we could enjoy these ‘boring brown beers’ as much as we did.  I’ve enjoyed great pints of Greene King IPA on occasion – in the right pub at the right time – and I now reject a beer scene where anyone needs to be defensive about that, just as much as I reject a beer scene that says cask ale is the only beer worth drinking.
There was a different aspect of the same thing with some of the criticism of the Proud of Beer video.  Why was Carling in there? Wasn’t this supposed to be a video promoting craft beer?  Well, no.  It was supposed to be a video promoting the British beer industry.  Because if Old CAMRA, the extremophiles, those arguing that SIBA brewers are parasites, those who believe Molson Coors are going to close down Sharps (even though the Cornish brewery has just had some brand new fermenting vessels delivered), those who hate beer tickers, those who say cask is dead, those who say keg is de facto shit, those who think any beer with under 50 IBUs is shit – if you could all just lift your heads out of you navels and look around for a bit, you’d see the real picture. 
There’s a war on drink at the moment, and beer is the scapegoat.  Every article on Britain’s binge drinking epidemic uses the pint as its frame of reference, despite the fact that beer sales overall are nose diving while wine and spirits sales increase.  Tax on beer has gone up by 26% in the last two years, and will go up by another 7% in this month’s budget.  Beer is massively under-represented in popular press coverage, and most people in the general public still perceive it as uninteresting and not for them.  Pubs are closing at the rate of 29 a week.
So if you care about beer enough to write about it, or evangelise it in any other way, it would be really great if you could do so positively.  Anyone who looks in on our industry, our beer scene, from the outside, sees a pack of squabbling kids.  If you’re a curious drinker who might try beer, it puts you off pretty quickly.  If you’re a minister wondering whether the industry deserves a break, you see a fragmented and ineffective lobbying body.  By focusing on internal battles, we’re allowing wine and spirits on one side and teetotallers on the other to reposition beer as something not worth bothering with.  We simply don’t make Planet Beer look like a very attractive place to be.
I’m not saying don’t be passionate about your favourite beer or favourite beer style.  But I would ask you to try one experiment.  If you do write about beer, and you write something about a beer you like, and you use what you regard as a crap beer as a point of comparison, save it and put it to one side.  Then, try to write the same piece without slagging off inferior beers.  Now, find a friend whose opinion you trust, who isn’t as passionate about beer as you, and ask them which they think reads better, which makes them want to try your beer – the one that praises the beer on its own merits, or the one that slags off what it is not?
Also – anticipating the first wave of comments and cries of hypocrisy here – I’m not saying never be critical, and I’m not saying don’t call bullshit when you see (or taste) it.  But do judge something on its own merits.  
Think of, say, a Jay Rayner restaurant review.  He does negative reviews – and how – but he does these on the basis of the restaurants own merits or lack of them, visiting it, and taking it on its own terms.  He doesn’t slag off a kebab shop for not having a Michelin star, or a provincial family-run restaurant for not being in the West End.  
See what I’m saying?  I hope so.  When I slagged off Stella Black, for example, I did so on the basis of tasting it, judging it as the super-premium lager it claimed to be.  It was revealing and sad that Cooking Lager expressed surprise that I had actually tasted it before slagging it off – what does that say about our perceived prejudices? 
What I am saying is two things:
Firstly, let’s not draw these ideological lines in the sand any more.  Let’s try to celebrate beer
Secondly, when we celebrate the beers we love, let’s do that, rather than constantly using what they’re not as a frame of reference.  Because you know what? It’s lazy, and it comes across as really insecure.
I look forward to all your positive, inclusive and constructive comments, people.

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Wikio Rankings – February

It’s all change in the Wikio rankings – not sure what’s going on!

1 Pencil & Spoon
2 Pete Brown’s Blog
3 Beer Reviews
4 Master Brewer at Adnams
5 Bibendum Wine
6 Zythophile
7 Drinking Outside The Box
8 Reluctant Scooper
9 Sour Grapes
10 The Wine Conversation
11 Spittoon
12 Tandleman’s Beer Blog
13 Are You Tasting the Pith?
14 Called to the bar
15 Raising the Bar
16 Rabid About Beer
17 Thornbridge Brewers’ Blog
18 The Good Stuff
19 The Pub Curmudgeon
20 Real Brewing at the Sharp End

Ranking made by Wikio

Congrats to Young Dredge for making the top spot.

Interesting to see some wine guys making a much stronger showing than they have over the last year or so – this can only be encouraging in terms of diversity etc.

I’m also really pleased to see brewers’ own blogs making an increasingly strong showing, with Adnams, Sharps and Thornbridge in there – not sure what’s happened to Brew Dog!

Off the back of hosting The Session, Reluctant Scooper shows a strong rise.  If you’ve never read him before, please take the chance to do so now.

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Calling all beer writers: major new beer writing competition announced

Oxford Brookes University and Wells and Young’s have come together to offer £2000 Bombardier Beer prize for writing on “the joys and jolliness of beer”

Bombardier Beer and Oxford Brookes University today announce the launch of a new competition with a £2000 cash prize offered for the best piece of writing about beer and its role in society.

The competition is open to anyone who writes about beer – or aspires to do so – from mainstream journalists and the top names of the beer-writing world, to young bloggers and as-yet-unpublished enthusiasts.

The judges are asking for a piece of up to 1500 words on the subject of beer’s role in society, or as writer, food critic and competition judge Charles Campion puts it, “the joys and jolliness of beer”, and beer’s role as a social lubricant.

“We’re not looking for technical writing, campaigning tracts or extracts form guidebooks,” continues Campion, “beer is the most sociable drink in the world and doesn’t get fair recognition. This prize is an attempt to help change that.”

As well as Campion, judges will include Paul Wells from Wells and Young’s who are sponsoring the prize, Donald Sloan, the Chair of Oxford Gastronomica at Oxford Brookes University, and Pete Brown, writer and winner of the Michael Jackson Gold Tankard Award for Beer Writer of the Year in 2009.

The closing date for entries will be Friday 1st April 2011. The winner will then be announced at the 2011 Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival on the evening of Friday 8th April, during a dinner and reception at the Oxford Malmaison Hotel

For full details on format of entries and submission process contact Razia Nabi (rnabi@brookes.ac.uk)

I was very honoured to be asked to be one of the judges – until I found out about the size of the prize and realised I couldn’t enter.  Good luck!

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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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Simon Jenkins crowned Beer Writer of the Year

So last night I had to hand over the title.  It’s not fair – my year as Beer Writer of the Year passed very quickly – partly because it was only 51 weeks, with this year’s dinner being a week earlier than last year.

Part of winning meant I had to be chair of the judges this year.  We were deluged by a record entry: 45 individuals entered work.  On average, they each entered 2.3 of the available six categories, with between one and six pieces of work each time.  My fellow judges and I read about 400 different pieces of beer writing, from 400 word columns to 1000 page books, and everything in between.

Last night, after a cracking beer and food dinner prepared by Michelin star chef Sriram Aylur, we revealed the winners.  I’m too hungover to go into great detail about each one, and if you’ve read this far you probably just want to get a quick look at the names anyway.  There are some familiar names and some new ones.  If there’s anyone here who you’ve never read before, I urge you to check them out.

I’ll just say a bit about our overall winner, Beer Writer of the Year 2010, Simon Jenkins.  Because he writes in a regional newspaper not many of us get to see his work, and he’s already being described as a ‘new face’ despite the fact that he’s about my age and has been writing pub reviews for years.  It’s so good then, that we have a regional category that allows great writing to reach a wider audience.  I’ve put a link at the bottom of this post to a random pub review he’s written for the Yorkshire Post, and I’d urge you to follow the links from that page to the other reviews listed down the side.  I’ve also linked to all other winners’ work where I can.

There was an awful lot of writing to read while judging.  But with some people we got to the end of their submission and were disappointed that there wasn’t any more to read.  Simon exemplified this.  That’s one reason he won.

Another reason is that pubs are going through hell at the moment, and anyone reading Simon’s review will be overcome by a desperate urge to go to the pub – any pub – by the time they’re halfway down the page.  I said when presenting the award last night that one of the biggest challenges facing all beer writers is the struggle to reach a wider audience, to not just preach to the converted.

I really don’t want to sound ungrateful to any of the beer fans who read this blog, my books or any of the work produced by the writers below.  But the aim of the Guild is to spread the appreciation of beer.  We’re getting better at doing that, we’re more successful all the time, but we still struggle to bring in new people to the world of beer.  With his pub reviews, the judges felt this is exactly what Simon excels at.


Brewer of the Year 
Stefano Cossi, Thornbridge Brewery

Budweiser Budvar John White Travel Bursary
Winner: John Conen, Bamberg and Franconia – Germany’s Brewing Heartland

Bishop’s Finger Award for Beer and Food Writing
Winner: Will Beckett, Imbibe magazine

Brains SA Gold Award for Best Online Communication 
Winner: Mark Dredge 
Runner-up: Jerry Bartlett

Adnams Award for Best Writing in Regional Publications 
Winner: Simon Jenkins, Yorkshire Evening Post 
Runner-up: Duncan Brodie, East Anglian Daily Times 

Wells & Young’s Awards for Best Writing for the Beer and Pub Trade 
Winner: Larry Nelson, Brewers’ Guardian 
Runner-up: Isla Whitcroft, Beer, the Natural Choice

Molson Coors’ Award for Best Writing in National Publications 
Winner: Zak Avery
Runner-up: Adrian Tierney-Jones 

The Michael Jackson Gold Tankard Award – Beer Writer of the Year 2010
Simon Jenkins
(This link takes you to one of Simon’s pub reviews in the Yorkshire Evening Post.  There’s a list down the right hand side of more pub reviews – all Simon’s.)

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October Wikio Rankings

Gosh, it’s that time of the month again, when beer bloggers get grouchy and irritable for a few days and I’ll just draw that analogy to a close before it gets going.

Here are the rankings for the month of September:

Wikio.co.uk Beer & Wine Ranking – October 2010

1 Pete Brown’s Blog (=)
2 Pencil & Spoon (=)
3 Brew Dog Blog (=)
4 The Pub Curmudgeon (=)
5 Woolpack Dave’s beer and stuff blog (+3)
6 Are You Tasting the Pith? (+1)
7 Tandleman’s Beer Blog (-1)
8 Beer Reviews (+1)
9 Called to the bar (-4)
10 Zythophile (+1)
11 Boak and Bailey’s Beer Blog (+1)
12 Brew Wales (+3)
13 The Beer Nut (-3)
14 Thornbridge Brewers’ Blog (+5)
15 Spittoon (-2)
16 I might have a glass of beer (Ent.)
17 Reluctant Scooper (-1)
18 Beer. Birra. Bier. (-4)
19 “It’s just the beer talking” – Jeff Pickthall’s Blog (+2)
20 Travels With Beer (-3)

Ranking made by Wikio.co.uk

No change up at the top then.  But look what’s happening overall: with the honourable exception of Spittoon (which to be fair looks like a very well put together blog about wine and food) the rest of the top 20 are now all beer blogs.

So momentous is this, Wikio has even started calling it the ‘beer and wine’ listing rather than ‘wine and beer’.

I wrote a section in the Cask Report about how the online beer community is actually helping drive the growth of craft brewing in the UK, spreading enthusiasm and knowledge, giving brewers a platform to showcase their beers.  With my marketing hat on, when you look at the twiss ups, meet the brewer events, V-blogs, promotions, beer swaps etc that are happening now, I think we’re seeing a new marketing model emerge, where consumers and manufacturers work together to promote the category.  Sure we can be inwards looking and cliquey at times, as any community can, but please, keep it up – this is brilliant.

And do let me know if you’d like to feature the exclusive rankings on your blog at any time.

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Exclusive: Wikio rankings for July

Yes, it’s the monthly blog post you love to hate: the Wikio rankings!

There have been some changes at Wikio this month so it’s all a little later than usual, but below are the movers and shakers for January 2010, due to be published in the Wikio site on 10th August:

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Beer blogs are now up to 18 of out the top 20 “wine and beer blogs”.  There’s also a creeping increase in the amount of beer coverage in the nationals – Young Dredge is getting some pieces on the Guardian’s Word of Mouth blog, and we’ve had two paid-for beer supplements in national press so far this year.  A few of us have also had more bits in the papers than we’re used to getting.

What do you think – is the beer message finally starting to come through?

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Ice Cold in Alex

“They served it ice-cold in Alex…

For the moment that he shut his eyes, he could see every detail of that little bar in the lane off Mahomet Ali Square; the high stools, the marble-topped counter, the Greek behind it. The sound of the place came back… the purr of the overhead fan, a fly, buzzing drowsily, the muffled noise of the traffic seeping through the closed door…

Then he thought about the beer itself, in tall thin glasses, so cold that there was a dew glistening on the outside of them, even before they were put down on the counter; the pale amber clearness of it; the taste, last of all.”

I like to look at how writers who don’t normally write about beer treat it when it crosses their path – some of the best ‘beer writing’ doesn’t come from beer writers at all.  They’re starting from a different perspective and with a different frame of reference. If they’re good, they can make even the most knowledgeable and experienced beer enthusiast think again about the essence and the role of great beer.

Christopher Landon served as a ‘Desert Rat’ in North Africa in the Second World War. In 1957 he fictionalised his experiences for a novel that went on to become one of the most famous war films of all time: Ice Cold in Alex. It contains possibly the most iconic beer drinking shot in the whole history of cinema – but we’ll come to that later. A few months ago I spotted a reprint of the novel in a bargain bookshop. Tempted by the cover illustration of a tall, full, pilsner glass, I decided to give it a go.

The opening passage above forms the opening of the book. Captain George Anson is a man ‘with too much sun, too much sand, too much of everything to bear.’ Stuck in Tobruk as a circle of Nazi armour closes around it, he’s succumbing to alcoholism, cauterizing his senses with a repetitive, metronomic swigging of the whisky bottle.

As the fall of Tobruk becomes inevitable, all non-essential personnel are shipped out to Alexandria before the noose closes. Anson is charged with getting two nurses in an ambulance to safety. He takes with him his faithful mechanic, Sergeant Major Tom Pugh, and on the way they pick up Zimmerman, a stranded South African officer who is not all he seems.

(Oh alright, he’s a German spy.)

Needless to say, things don’t go according to plan. They’re forced to detour deeper and deeper into the desert to avoid the German armour. At one point a German armoured column fires on them, killing one of the nurses. As the Germans decide whether or not to let them go, Anson’s old self emerges, and he swears off the whisky for the duration of their journey:

“Anson’s voice went on, it was different, held a faraway, dream-like quality. “If he has… I’m going to tell you something right now, Tom. It will be a sort of peace offering. Do you know the next drink I’m going to have? A beer, Tom. A bloody great, tall, ice-cold glass of Rheingold in that little bar off Mahoment Ali Square in Alex… and I’ll buy you one, all of you one, because I’m bloody well going to get you there.”

Rheingold was an American lager, from a New York brewery founded in 1883 by a German Jew called Samuel Liebmann.  Anson calls it “The best and coldest Yankee beer in the Delta”. But reading about it in this context, its German name and ancestry says something in and of itself about war’s bitter ironies.

The biggest character in the book though is the desert itself. Landon’s descriptions of the mirage – a solid, shimmering wall throwing all manner of illusions at them – the blazing sun and the unyielding, hostile but ever-changing sand, render North Africa as a different planet. As the book forces you to consider the desert from the point of view of the average Briton in the early 1940s – it strikes you that it might as well have been.

Anson, Tom Pugh and Diana the surviving nurse figure out that Zimmerman’s a kraut spy pretty quickly. But the desert forces them to unite against a common enemy, survival coming before the war against Nazism.

Anson rallies and his inspirational leadership galvanizes the other three. The beer has become totemic to him, not just for the alcoholic hit he’s denying himself until they reach safety, nor for the promise of near-orgasmic refreshment after the parched dessert: he’s promised to buy them a beer. And to buy them a beer, he has to get them to Alexandria.

One night, Anson and Diana are talking on watch, under the stars:

““Let’s talk about something else… Beer.”

“But I thought that was out.”

“It is – until that date in Alex. Do you know – I’ve been thinking about that one particular drink all day. I’ve told you about the bar, haven’t I? But that Rheingold – it’s so bloody cold that there’s a sort of dew on the outside of the glass. I always run my finger up and down – to make a sort of trail – before I have my first sip.””

Beer is hope.

I wrote in Man Walks into a Pub about some ancient myths in which beer is a gift of hope to humanity, a consolation prize for having to cope with knowledge, sin and inevitable mortality. Here it’s a rock that Anson can cling to, to prevent himself from falling apart.

On the outskirts of the city, KATY the ambulance is on her last legs – or last wheels I suppose – rattling and wheezing and leaking and steaming as the city reaches out and pulls them in. The book flits between the perspective of each of the four characters, and as the finale approaches we’re with mechanic Tom Pugh:

“He was not hungry, not thirsty – but once when the captain said, “I hope that beer’s bloody cold,” his mouth started watering uncontrollably.”

Finally, they make it. The bar is just as Anson described it, empty because it’s still early. The barman sees four unwashed, filthy tramps until Anson rouses him with a parade ground bark.


When they came up, again they were as he said they would be, pale amber in tall thin glasses, and so cold, the dew had frosted on the outside before he put them down. They stood in a row now, but Tom waited, as he knew the others were waiting, for Anson to make the first move. He stared at his for a moment, looking all round as if it were a rare specimen, then ran his finger up and down the side of the glass, leaving a clear trail in the dew. He said, “That’s that,” and lifted the glass and tilted it right back. Tom watched the ripple of the swallow in the lean throat, and there was a tight feeling inside him and his eyes were smarting and he knew that in a moment he would cry. So he lifted up his own glass and swallowed it fast.

When Anson put his glass down it was empty. “I quite forgot to drink your healths,” he said. Then to the barman, “Set ‘em up again.””

It’s ready-written to be the climactic scene of the film adaptation. This is the ultimate thirst, the best beer you’ve ever tasted, a reward for the hardest day’s work imaginable. It works perfectly in the film – so perfectly, in fact, that all it took was one editor’s snip, one line of dialogue and a title to turn it into the second-best beer ad of all time.

Of course, the fact that for some reason the filmmakers switched Rheingold for Carlsberg detracts a level or two from the meaning. But without that bit of corporate chicanery, there’d have been no ad. And if there hadn’t been an ad, I would have forgotten about the film. And if I’d forgotten about the film, I would never have read this powerful, moving little book.

I can’t find the ad itself on YouTube, and blogger won’t let me upload the mpeg I have of it from my laptop, but here is the piece of film Carlsberg later used in the ad, without title and voice over:

So let’s hear it for the ice-cold, dew-dropped glass of lager. Given the choice I tend to go for cask ale these days. But if you were in Anson’s baked, cracked shoes, you’d have to be some kind of pervert to fancy anything other than one of these frosty bad boys.

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Why Beer Matters – Second place runner up

People seemed to enjoy reading John Bidwell’s piece, (and it’s gratifying to see the competition topic still being discussed on beer blogs) so I now present the entry that narrowly beat him.

Shea Luke is a young woman who really enjoys drinking real ale. That shouldn’t be extraordinary, but some people seem to think it is, and in the piece below Shea tells us how she deals with that.
What the judges liked about this one was its energy and freshness. There are a few women writing about beer, some with a great deal of success, but it would always be helpful to have some more if we want to convince women (and men) that there is no inherent reason why women can’t drink beer too. We liked the attitude here and hope to see more of it!
The most common reactions I get when people find out about my geekily keen beer passion are “How do you stay so slim?” and “What’s it like hanging around with loads of bearded old men?” Granted, it’s unusual to find a 26 year old, female girl about town, who has drunk around 1200, and continually counting, different British beers since records began. These are only my records, of course, in four consecutive Good Beer Guides, but my obsessive carrying around of these near sacred tomes, and the subsequent broken handbag straps and scarred shoulders, will surely convince you of their trustworthiness. By the way, just in case you are a particularly curious type, this number does not include the hundreds of foreign beers I’ve supped; I have to draw the ticking and record keeping line somewhere, people. This achievement, whilst undoubtedly nerdy for such a groovy gal, which I assure you I am in most other aspects of life, is a fact I am always quick to point out to the handful of ‘bearded old men’ who still advise me to stick to something weak or fruity. You see, these 1200 odd brews are not just evidence of a deep love of beer, but an (admittedly thus far relatively short) lifelong quest to sample and delight in our country’s beers. Beers from both ends of the strength spectrum, beers from all corners of the nation, beers that represent a long heritage and history, beers that began as an enthusiast’s home brew, beers that use local produce, beers that help keep vital community pubs alive, beers that bring likeminded people together, beers that push boundaries with unusual and exciting ingredients, beers that simply make your day that bit better, beers that just taste darn good. Let it be known that I am willing to stand my ground to fight for these beers, even if I have to argue with an outdated girlphobe to get my hands on them. Hands which, for your information, are not so small and delicate as to require a special mini, stemmed girly glass, and while we are at it, no I wouldn’t prefer a vodka, yes I do know that there are more stouts than Guinness, and no, it really doesn’t need to be fizzy for me to enjoy it. But, as a fellow curly haired revolutionary said, the times they are a- changing, and it really is just a teeny handful of fuddy-duddies who persist in derogatory ‘you are a girl, you don’t know anything about beer’ comments. I now have a faithful collection of bearded (and clean shaven) pals who are interested in my beer related opinions. Young people who are equally proud of their ale geekdom, people from other beer minority drinking groups (like my pensioner friend form the Caribbean who claims we are two of a kind, fighting the corner of underrepresented ale lovers), and a London based brewer who might be producing a special for my wedding (you don’t get that from Smirnoff). But none of them look as good as me in a Dark Star Brewing Co. T-shirt. Or pint glass shaped earrings. Beer matters. It matters to all those people. It matters to all the pub landlords in the cities and towns around the UK that my Good Beer Guide led holidays take me to. It matters to the microbrewers in manky derelict farm buildings that have left jobs in the city to pursue their passion and to help nourish ours. It matters to the retirees whose social calendar revolves around manning the beer mat flooded tombola. It now matters to the Spanish girls in their twenties that I met at a recent beer festival who asked for something like San Miguel but left drinking porter. I’m not a brewer, I’m not bearded, I’m not retired, and I am absolutely not a bloke, but, do you know what? Beer definitely matters to me.