Tag: Beer

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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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It’s official: hell hath truly frozen over

“Ha! Ha! Ha! Being a stock photography model is such FUN!”

Birds fall dead from the sky.  Australia sinks into the sea. Brazil disappears under an avalanche of mud.

This is truly the end of days.

Any second now, birds will fly backwards.  Dogs will howl into the sky.  Flags will hang heavy at the tops of their poles and your wallet will fill with blood.  Time will reverse, volcanos will erupt, the four horsemen will ride and everything you knew will turn into the opposite of itself.

And lo.  It’s already started.

Because today, the Daily Mail publishes a positive story about beer.  Yeah, you heard me.  Good news.  About beer. In. The. Daily. Mail.

There is not one attempt to spin it negatively, distort the news, misrepresent anyone, lie, or otherwise seek to create fear and suspicion in their readers.

It seems that two Spanish scientists have done a study that confirms what people like the Beer Academy have been saying for years: moderate consumption of beer is not only not bad for you – it’s positively good for you.  One pint a day (yeah, I know, but bear with), accompanying a healthy diet, reduces the risk of diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.  Rather than putting weight on, in some cases it actually correlated with weight loss.

Suddenly, the Mail is saying things that the beer community have been trying to make people listen to for years, as if they were news: moderate beer consumption has the same health benefits attributed to red wine; beer is not to blame for the famous British beer belly, etc.  There’s some interesting stuff about the difference between Spanish and British drinking culture, and how it’s the way we drink that makes a difference.  I covered all this in Three Sheets to the Wind five years ago, but it’s still nice to see someone finally sitting up and taking notice.  It’s more than nice.  It’s bloody wonderful.

One thing that made me laugh out loud though, because the alternative was to open a vein: in my 2010 round-up I commented upon the relentless negativity that afflicts many on the internet, noting that even when I post a blog about something really good, the first comments are without fail from people who have somehow managed to see a down side.  I speculated that even if I were to post news that great-tasting craft beer cured cancer, some of you would still be able to find a negative angle on such news.

Well get a load of the Mail page.  Here is news that is quite wonderful to behold, almost in the same territory, though not the same magnitude, as my hypothetical cancer cure story: moderate beer consumption is positively good for you.  Could anyone POSSIBLY have a problem with that?

Oh hell, yeah.

The kind of people who write on Daily Mail comment boards make you haterz out there look positively cuddly and benign.

By half ten this morning, Royston Amhplett from Bournemouth had got in there with “And yet another ploy to increase the tax revenue.” Yeah, that’s right, Roy! That beer lovin’ government and reactionary right-wing tabloid are conspiring to trick you into drinking more beer and enjoy yourself! That’s what they want you to do!

Fraz from Gosport chipped in with “Researchers never fail to ASTONISH me with thier [sic] Groundbreaking “Discoveries” Just how much are these IDIOTS costing the Nation ???!!!” Er – nothing Fraz.  If you’d actually read the piece before getting your specially green-inked keyboard out, you’d see that they’re at the University of Barcelona.

Andy in Scotland moans, “If you wanna keep lapping up these fantasy stories that it’s good for you, please feel free to drink as much as you like.  It’s just a shame that the reality is that your lax-attitude to alcohol is costing the national health service, tax-payers and police more money than any other substance on Earth. Shame on you, drunken Britain.” Well, no Andy, they were at pains to point out it’s not about drinking as much as you like; it’s about moderate consumption.  Hey Andy, go for a walk! In a few weeks the daffodils will be out and the little lambs will be frolicking in the fields. Go look at them for a bit.  Breathe the fresh air.  Let it go.  Smile!

Pete in the UK (no relation), actually knows more about the topic than scientists who have conducted in-depth rigorous studies into the effects of alcohol: “What absolute nonsense, DM – and you wonder why the UK has a drink problem? This apologist lie of a story is not only scientifically inaccurate, but also is just another excuse for drunks to decimate our national health service.”  Yep, the scientific community and the right wing reactionary media are looking for excuses to cost the health service money all the time.  That’s what they do.  Scientists wake up every morning and go, “Hmm, how can I use my big scientific brain to fuck up the NHS today?”

But top prize goes to a fella from New York who is in such denial about his relationship with alcohol and so unable to take responsibility for his own behaviour that he posted this classic: “There is a chemical additive in beer that they claim is a preservative. But in actuality it is a addictive agent [sic]. Many years earlier when I drank, a few beers did the job. Many years later 24 beers was not enough this is due to the so called preservation which is actually an addicting [sic] agent. I gave up drinking 14 years ago and never looked back.”

When I have my first pint following my dry January, I’ll smile and reflect upon the fact that every single day of my life, even the stressful days and the days where self-doubt moves in and squats over me like a heavy weather front, I am happier and more at peace with myself than any of these people ever are.

If I have one moan myself, it’s not with the Daily Mail, the study itself, or anything like that.  It’s that at the time of writing, a quick internet search revealed that the only national British newspapers to cover this story were the Mail, Daily Express and Daily Telegraph.  The Guardian, Independent, Times, Sun and Daily Star have all ignored it.  How different it was back in November, when David Nutt produced a study that had not a shred of the scientific rigour and process this one has, that claimed alcohol was worse than heroin, and received blanket coverage.

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

A day late thanks to laptop crashes. Here are my final reflections…

Source of cautious optimism of the year: The rebirth of the (good) pub

Is the worst over?  The number of pubs per week that are closing their doors for good fell from 49 in mid-2009 to 29 in 2010.  That’s still too many – but it’s an improvement.
That’s actually a net figure – more pubs are closing than that, but some of them reopen as pubs.  In fact Christie & Co, a big pub estate agent, claim 60% of the closed pubs that pass through their books reopen as pubs.
And everywhere I’ve gone in 2010, I’ve seen great new pubs opening, and flourishing.  In every one, the story is the same: here was a pub that, before the end, had chased the lowest common denominator in search of shoring up its income, with brighter lights, louder TV screens and music, karaoke and promotions on lurid drinks.  In every one, the new landlord said to me something along the lines of “Before this placed closed, there was more money changing hands in the toilet cubicles than was being passed over the bar.”  Pubs signal the kind of place they are as soon as you walk in, and attract custom – or not – accordingly.
And whether we’re talking craft beer pubs like the Jolly Butcher’s on my doorstep, the Cask and Kitchen in Pimlico or the newly opened Thornbridge pub the Greystones in Sheffield, or revived community pubs like the Chesterfield Arms in Chesterfield or the Morgan in Malvern, these boarded up shells have been taken over by people who get that a good pub should be about good beer and good conversation.  They’re reclaiming their roles as community hubs.  People who haven’t sat together and spoken for years come together once more. 
It’s not foolproof, but decent beer pubs offering good beer in the right location are thriving.

Buried hatchet of the year: The Great British Beer Festival

Regular readers may have noticed that I slag off CAMRA with some regularity.  I don’t enjoy it, but it has to be done. 
The first slagging I gave our consumer campaigning body was in my first book, Man Walks into a Pub, and the main focus of my ire was the Great British Beer Festival.  I used to be drawn to it every year, and I used to hate it every year.  I hated its unfriendly staff, its singular lack of atmosphere, and the fact that every single aspect of it seemed to actively alienate anyone who was not already a fully paid-up CAMRA member.
In 2009, I grudgingly admitted that much had changed, and despite reservations, it was getting pretty good.  In 2010, I enjoyed it unreservedly. 
We could still point to the appalling acoustics, the ludicrous situation whereby Meantime, a brewer of incredibly authentic traditional London beer styles, is not allowed to exhibit those beers in a London beer festival thanks to an irrelevant technicality, or the apparently growing hostility to the large regional brewers who kept real ale alive until the micro boom came along.  It’ll never be perfect. 
But there’s been a lot of thought given to layout and navigation, the foreign beers now get the space and respect they deserve, and the staff of volunteers have undergone a massive charm offensive, and are, on balance, as unfailingly polite and helpful as they were rude and hostile a few years ago.  More than that, festivals are made by the people who attend them.  The craft beer revolution and CAMRA’s more open body language have attracted a much broader spectrum of people, and GBBF now actually feels like a festival.  It feels like a celebration of great beer on a grand scale – which is what it ought to be.
Congratulations, CAMRA.

Big night out of the year: Kelly Ryan’s Euston Tap Farewell

Most sadly missed, Britain’s loss is New Zealand’s gain etc. 
At the end of the year Kelly Ryan, Thornbridge brewer, brilliant public face for the brewery and perfect foil for the gifted but shy genius that is head brewer Stefano Cossi, decided to return home down under. He announced that he’d be having a few drinks in the newly opened Euston Tap on 1st December, if anyone wanted to come along and say goodbye.
Earlier that evening I’d already been to a Beer Genie Christmas beer tasting with my oldest friend, Chris.  This was also a leaving drink of sorts, with Chris leaving London after 16 years to return oop north.  Kelly’s party was in full swing when we arrived, with many familiar faces.  Thornbridge Alliance, one of only two casks in existence of a beer brewed three years ago in collaboration with Garret Oliver, was on the bar, alongside several other Thornbridge solo and collaborative brews.  I was asked for my autograph when I walked in, which was weird – I’ve signed lots of books and stuff, but never actually been asked for my autograph before, and certainly not on the basis of my appearances on a long-lost food TV programme four years ago.  
There was already a certain giddiness in the air.  With heady beers of 10% or 11% on the cards, I planned my night’s drinking carefully – three or four different halves, building in flavour and intensity, until finishing on the Alliance at about 10pm then heading home. 
This would have worked if I was buying my own drinks, but on nights like this in the Tap that’s not always easy.  Various indeterminate pints and halves began appearing in front of us.  And then in burst Jamie, proprietor of both Sheffield and Euston Taps, bearing a heavy plaque that had been awarded him by a bunch of railway enthusiasts for the restoration of the Sheffield Tap, presented by none other than celebrity trainspotter Pete Waterman.  More drinks all round.
And then it started snowing, heavily, and then pizzas arrived, and then it was snowing inside, because a bunch of polystyrene appeared from somewhere and Chris was tearing it into smaller pieces and throwing it in the air.  Jamie was challenging people to arm wrestling contests at the bar, goading them with slaps around the face if they proved hesitant.  I don’t think the stoic bar manager, Yan, ever actually called time or declared a lock-in.  It just reached a point deep in the night where anyone who came to the door took one look inside and hurried away again.  Kelly and his girlfriend Kat looked delighted, accepting endless drinks and occasionally even trying to buy one.   The snow continued to fall and barley wine followed Imperial Stout followed Double IPA, and we stayed there, drinking irresponsibly, until about 2am.
One of those nights you’ll remember for years to come – the sheer joy of drinking great beer with great people.  In the snow.

Local triumph of the year: London finally catches up with Microbrew revolution

In 2006, Ben McFarland and I spent a day touring Boulder, Colorado, while visiting the Great American beer festival.  At that time Boulder (population, 85,000) had 15 breweries.  London (population 7 million) had two that people knew about, and maybe two more that were known to real aficionados.  It seemed bizarre that, in the midst of the UK microbrewing revolution, the nation’s capital, home to legendary historical breweries like Whitbread, Courage, Watney’s, Truman’s and Barclay Perkins, had fewer breweries than places like Sheffield and Derby.
In 2009-2010, that all changed.  When the explosion came, it was all the more forceful for having been kept waiting so long.  Sambrooks opened at the end of 2008, Brodies in 2009, and in 2010 we gained Redemption, The Kernel, Saints and Sinners/Brew Wharf, Camden Town and, a little further out, Windsor and Eton.  With Fuller’s breaking new ground, Meantime moving to a new level, Battersea Brewing somewhere below the radar, Zero Degrees in Blackheath and the Twickenham brewery, London finally has a vibrant brewing scene once more.  Not only that, across the board there’s a level of variety, experimentation and cooperation that gladdens the heart as it excites the palate.
So, lots of moans about 2010, but lots to be very happy about too.  I think the trend towards interesting beer has proved not to be a fad.  Now, when I tell people what I do for a living, about half of them say, “Oh yeah, beer’s pretty cool at the moment isn’t it?  I was trying something new and interesting the other day.”  I don’t know if we’ll ever get the sudden explosion of interest that cider got with Magner’s.  But compared to when I started writing about beer, the variety and enthusiasm surrounding it now is phenomenal.
Here’s to more of the same in 2011.

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

Here’s part two of my review of the year – three more arbitrary categories…

Villains of the year: The rise and rise of the neo-pros

I spent most of January trying to offer a robust and factually based defence against the wilful distortions and occasional outright lies told by those who seek to curb our right to drink.  The actual data – from most sources – suggests that Britain’s drink problem is declining, yet the NHS, Government and newspapers from the Daily Mail right through to the Guardian are trying to tell us the ‘epidemic’ is getting worse.  Any rational, scientific analysis of the data shows this is not true.  But no one is giving us that analysis. 
As the biggest consumer body, CAMRA does absolutely nothing to confront or challenge the lies being told about drinkers and pubs.  All it does is ‘welcome’ the bits where people like Alcohol Concern acknowledge the role of well run community pubs as part of the solution, not the problem, and campaign for a lower rate of duty for low strength beers.  Where distortions are put forward about drink in a wider sense, CAMRA remains silent.  Always.  
People like Mike Benner deserve to be congratulated for at least getting Alcohol Concern to concede the point on community pubs.  But for a body that, according to its website, acts ‘as the consumer’s champion in relation to the UK and European beer and drinks industry’ (ie it’s NOT ‘just about real ale’, as many of its defenders are quick to argue) it plays no role at all in supporting the industry or the consumer in this wider attack on our right to drink and our reputation as drinkers.
The BBPA is little better – though it at least has an excuse.  If the BBPA were to actively argue that the scale of alcohol abuse in this country were being deliberately exaggerated and distorted (it doesn’t), the media would say “well you would say that wouldn’t you?  You’re the drinks industry.” Even though this argument is never put to self-declared temperance advocates,  whose “findings” are accepted without dispute.  Every time.
Look at the case of David Nutt, for example.  In the autumn, he published a study that was not peer-reviewed, had a deeply questionable methodology, and had questionable, self-interested motivations, claiming that alcohol was more harmful then hard drugs such as heroin.  His findings were published without question, as ‘authoritative’ scientific fact.  The Guardian broke this story on a Monday.  I wrote to the Guardian pointing out the problems with methodology and the self-interest point, arguing that the Guardian, as professional journalists, should at least show some scepticism about what they were being told.  I was ignored.  An archive search shows that in the week that followed, no dissenting voice was published in the paper arguing against Nutt’s claims.  And yet on the Friday, he was given a full page to ‘answer his critics’ – critics who no one had actually been allowed to hear from.
And look at the case of the Dentist’s Chair.  The legislation banning promotions that encourage excessive alcohol consumption actually names the Dentist’s Chair specifically. Even though, at the time the legislation was passed, it seems that there was only one pub in Newcastle that actually did it.
A few people think I overreact about this.  But I’ve studied Prohibition in some detail for my books, and the point about everything from total Prohibition in the US through to the UK smoking ban in 2007 is that before you pass the legislation, you create a climate in which most people will support it.  That’s what’s happening now, and it’s happening quickly, and it’s happening because we are being deceived about the true scale of the problem.
Ben Goldacre, we need you.
Time to cheer up I think…

Personal regalvanisation event of the year: America

I’ve done so much this year that I haven’t had chance to write about a lot of it.  Partly I’m too busy doing stuff to actually write about it, partly the process of getting features commissioned, delivered and published is akin to the gestation period of an elephant.
In October I went to the US for ten days.  A trip that was based upon a book and a feature I’m writing expanded to include a bit of self-indulgent travelling.
It’s the first time I’ve been to the US for four years, first time in New York for six years, first time I’ve done a big beery adventure since I got back from India at the end of 2007.
And it’s a trip that completely reset me. 
I spend so much of my time now writing about the kind of shit above, arguing with people about beer style definitions, trying to meet trade press deadlines, negotiating the fine balance of political interest around the Cask Report, or worrying about keeping abreast with everything that’s happening in an ever-accelerating craft beer scene, I sometimes wonder why I want to be a professional beer writer, making my living from researching and commenting upon the beer and pub industry.
I went to New York and visited a couple of the obvious craft beer bars, and also found wonderful dive bars where the spirit of the boozer is alive and well.  I went to Brooklyn, had a tour of the Brooklyn Brewery, almost finished in its ambitious expansion, had a tasting of the stunning, poetic boutique beers Garrett Oliver is creating, then went out and got riotously drunk with Garrett in a selection of stylish Brooklyn craft beer bars, before wondering off into the New York night.  The next morning, scrolling back, I had cause to regret the invention of Twitter, reading what I’d posted the night before.
Then I got on a plane to Rochester, New York, the main purpose of my visit.  In an unassuming town, robbed of much of its purpose after the decline of Eastman Kodak, I visited the Old Toad, the pub I’d come to write about, one of the first real ale pubs in North America. 
My plan on Day One had been to sit at the end of the bar, order a pint and take in the ambience, observing anonymously before introducing myself to the people I was there to meet.  I was on the premises for ten seconds before someone tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Pete?”  They were waiting for me, Rochester’s craft beer drinkers, and they proceeded to show me a life-affirmingly excellent time. 
In three days I never got my chance to sit quietly at the end of the bar on my own.  I tried it one afternoon and the staff were sitting there trying to put together a ‘trifecta’ beer, food and whisky matching menu, which they pulled me into.  I mentioned that I loved Buffalo Wings and was taken to the place that served the best wings outside Buffalo itself – which also had a great selection of American micros.  I mentioned I loved the whole dive bar thing and was taken to Rochester’s best dive bars – which, again, had a great selection of American micros.  The Old Toad and its sort-of-sibling, the Tap and Mallet, and the group of great beer fans who drink in them, are worth the price of a transatlantic plane fare on their own.
But I wasn’t done yet.  On the Amtrak, around the Lakes and up to Toronto, to stay for a few days with Rudgie out of Hops and Glory, who now lives there.  A few days in town with him and the excellent Steve Beaumont, and again Toronto’s constituency of craft beer fans, beer writers and Hops and Glory fans were waiting for me in the craft beer pubs and at Volo, a one-time Italian restaurant that now boasted a cask ale festival featuring over thirty Canadian real ales, including some of the best Imperial porters and dark IPAs – sorry, “Cascadian dark ales” – I’ve ever tasted.  We won’t mention Rudgie taking us to the hockey game only to find out we had tickets for the wrong day, because we still had one of those evenings you remember for years, and the following morning he drove me for two hours up through Ontario to Creemore Springs, a craft brewery in a town strongly reminiscent of Groundhog Day’s Punxsutawney, especially when the Halloween snow started flying at the windscreen.  Creemore Springs itself was an object lesson in great Kellerbier and how sometimes, a macro can go into a partnership with a micro successfully, to the benefit of both partners.
Beer people, beer places, and great beer.  I came back from that trip re-energised, repurposed, the flame of passion for this crazy, infuriating, eccentric scene burning brighter than ever, with so many plans and ideas for 2011 and, more importantly, a pubfull of great new friends.
This is what beer is all about.  This is why I started this, was pulled into it, allowed it to change my life.
All of which makes me even more frustrated about…

Green ink moments of the year: Craft beer, CAMRA, real ale and beer styles

Beer is only any good if it’s from cask.  Fuller’s ESB is not ‘to style’ for an ESB.  The new wave of keg beers will consign cask to history.  Brewery X has grown so big I no longer like their beers (even though the beer hasn’t changed).  Micro is good, macro is bad – but how do we define micro?  Craft beer is a meaningless term and we shouldn’t use it.  Greene King IPA is not a true IPA.  Micros are parasites feeding off regional brewers.  Craft beer is only craft beer if the brewery producing it is below a certain size.  This beer is not really real ale if it served with gas pressure.  How can you have a black IPA?
Shut up.  All of you, just shut up.
I include myself in that.  I get pulled into some of these debates – I even fuel them sometimes – but I always regret doing so, and I apologise for every moment in 2010 where I’ve made people focus on these aspects of beer more than they otherwise would have.
On some level they’re important.  But try this test.  Find a friend or work colleague who you think is open to discovering the flavours of your favourite beer, but currently just drinks something boring and characterless.  Now try to interest them in that beer by telling them about your definition of craft beer, or real ale, or talking to them about the politics of craft brewing, or explaining the importance of the absence of cask breathers.
Now you’ve lost their interest and reaffirmed their status as a wine drinker for the foreseeable future, find a similar friend or colleague, and say, “Here, drink this,” and if they’re interested, tell them a bit about the history or provenance of it, or why it tastes as good as it does with reference to how it’s made and what’s in it.
Or if you can’t be bothered, just shut up.  Find the beer that made you fall in love with great beer.  Drink it.  Savour it. Enjoy it. And marvel at how good beer can be, how much happiness it can bring, the flavour sensations, the inspiration, the soft mellow buzz, the conviviality, the laughter, the friends.
Part three tomorrow.

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My final post on beer styles

I’ve been swayed by some of the really interesting points in response to yesterday’s post – but also reaffirmed in my conviction not to stay in these murky waters any longer than I have to. There is no right answer. It’s fascinating that on one side, you have people arguing that an obsession with beer style liberates craft brewers and inspires them to be more creative. And on the other you have equally qualified, equally talented people arguing that it stifles creativity. I have absolutely no interest in weighing in on that one any further.

But the very debate there brings me on to my second observation on beer styles – the argument changes entirely depending on whether you focus on the brewer, or the drinker. So…

2. The drinker doesn’t need 133 beer styles. Or 70. Or even 30.
Most people who cook have only seven recipes in their repertoire.  Even if they have shelves full of Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson, when it comes to planning what the family meal is going to be that night, research shows they revert to a list of no more than seven or eight choices. If they learn a new favourite dish, they forget one of the regulars they used to rely on.

Hold onto that thought – I promise it’s relevant.

On Monday night, in a very engaging defence of rigorous beer style definitions, Meantime’s Alastair Hook repeatedly made the comparison between wine and beer.  Wine, he argued, has triumphed over the last twenty years by focusing on style and educating the consumer in that style spectrum. Beer is lagging behind, and needs to do the same.  I think he is absolutely, 100 per cent right in this.  I couldn’t agree more.

Allow me a little thought experiment. I drink a lot of wine as well as beer.  I love it.  I’ve done a ten week wine tasting course.  I’m now going to name as many wine styles as I can think of off the top of my head.  Ready?  Here goes:

Chardonnay.  Sauvignon Blanc.  Cabernet Sauvignon.  Merlot.  Shiraz.  Pinot Grigio. Um…

I do know some more, but those ones came easily.

Let me think a bit harder:

Bordeaux.  Burgundy.  Claret.  (Are those styles?  Isn’t Claret the same as Burgundy?).  Cabernet Franc (I only know that one because of the course). Sauternes. Viogner. Rose (!?) Chablis? (No, that’s a Chardonnay).  There’s an Italian red I like, begins with P… no, it’s nearly there but… and what’s the really famous Italian Red?  Hannibal Lecter – Chianti!

No.  I’ve been sitting here for thirty seconds and that’s as many as I can get.  I’m having to work harder and harder to get each new one.  Of course I know more styles – I probably have at least twenty in my cellar.  Under hypnosis I might get to thirty or forty.  But as a knowledgeable consumer of wine, that’s the limit of my short term, top level, easily accessible memory.

How many did I get spontaneously? Six.

How many recipes can we store in our heads at an accessible level? Seven or eight.

You can see where I’m going.  Wine is indeed a useful comparison if we want consumers to engage with craft beer.  But it shows you how simple you have to make style.

Let’s take Chardonnay as an example.  As I mentioned, Chablis is a Chardonnay.  So is Blossom Hill Chardonnay.  There couldn’t be two more different wines, but from a consumer point of view, they’re both Chardonnay.

Maybe behind the scenes, the wine guys behave in a similar fashion to craft beer geeks.  Maybe Chardonnay breaks down into New World Oaked, New World Unoaked, Old World Unoaked, Old World Oaked Premier Cru, New World Single Estate, and so on.  But if it does, then as a heavy wine drinker and passionate adorer of good Chardonnay, I have no awareness of it.

From a brewer’s perspective, if you’re going to have 133 beer styles, why not knock yourselves out and have 500? If the system inspires one guy to produce one amazing beer that he otherwise would never have come up with, then it’s worthwhile.

But please, don’t foist it on me, or anyone else who doesn’t want it.  And don’t foist it on beers that are obviously more one style than they are anything else but ‘not to style’ according to a definition that’s meaningless beyond the circle of enthusiasts who created it.  (The comment about Fuller’s ESB not being ‘to style’ makes me want to reach for a shotgun – of course it’s a fucking ESB.)

Learn from wine.  Of course there are more than ten wine styles.  But I would hazard that most wine drinkers wouldn’t be familiar with more than that number.  Keep it simple.  Keep it relevant. Think about it from the point of view of the time-pressed, information overloaded consumer.  This is one of those occasions when I realise the marketing guys have something to contribute.  Sometimes, the reason they simplify stuff and reduce it down is because they understand that most people give a fraction of a second to each purchasing decision they make, and things have to be simple in order to register.

Beer styles help inspire some people to better brews.  I’m very happy about that.  But that’s ultimately meaningless if it doesn’t help – or in some cases even prevents – turning more people onto great craft beer.

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Beer styles: the first of only two posts I will ever write on the subject

Really interesting night last night at the magnificent Old Brewery in Greenwich, where the Guild of Beer Writers held a seminar on beer styles.

There was some entertaining and thought-provoking stuff which I’m not going to summarise here, partly because I can’t really be arsed and partly because the cream of British beer blogging talent was there, and I’m sure lots of other people will be providing a full and frank account – they were certainly making more notes than me.

Why can’t I be arsed? Because talking about beer styles makes my brain itch.  This is why I’ve stopped trying to get on judging panels for international beer competitions – I’d much rather judge a beer on whether I like it or not than whether it is brewed ‘to style’.  When I wrote Hops & Glory I poked a bit of fun at the US Brewers Association because they believed there were 70 different beer styles. That was three years ago.  They now think there are 133 different beer styles.  If someone invited me to judge at the Great American Beer festival – which they never will – I would honestly have to decline.

I have two things to say about beer styles, and two only.  It used to be one, but the second one emerged last night after talking to Meantime’s Peter Haydon about the aforementioned 133 beer styles.

In this post, I’m talking about the first point:

1. Style is not fixed – it evolves
Take India Pale Ale (as a random example plucked from the air).  No one knows what the true style is because it evolved from something else, and no one actually called it India Pale Ale until at least 50 years after it was first recognised as a pale ale brewed for consumption in India.

Historians of IPA claim that Hodgsons was the first IPA, and then go on to explain how Burton brewers like Allsopp improved upon it.  OK, so right there you have two quite different beers – London IPA, which was described as ‘muddy’ and bitter, and Burton IPA, which thanks to the water achieved a condition that made it bright and sparkling.

May IPA brewers today tell the story of how the beer changed on its journey to India, and in the same breath claim their beer is an ‘authentic’ IPA, despite the fact it has not been on that journey, and therefore not undergone that change.  If I were a pedant I would argue there has only been one genuine, authentic IPA produced in the last sixty years, and the dregs of it are in a keg behind the bar at the Deputy British High Commission in Calcutta.

Today many English brewers believe authentic IPA should only contain English hops, and that US IPA is some kind of inauthentic, brash cousin.  But brewing records from places like Bass and Hook Norton show American hops, which sometimes gave the beer ‘an aroma of blackcurrant leaf’, were in widespread use in the 1870s because there weren’t enough British hops to meet demand.

And at the same time, we had a change in taxation that incentivised brewers to cut the alcoholic strength in their beer.  By the mid-twentieth century there were hundreds of IPAs in the UK, and pretty much all of them would have been 3.4-3.5% session beers.  That twisted genius Ron Pattinson has shown that even in IPA’s heyday, there were some lower strength beers going out to India under this name.  The most popular IPA rant these days is that Greene King IPA is not a ‘real’ IPA.  OK it’s not authentic if you take the 1830s as your point of reference.  But if you could talk to any British brewer in the 1940s, he would have said Greene King was typical of the IPA style.  It’s no less valid – it’s the same beer at a different point in brewing history.

The problem (it’s not really a problem unless you’re trying to define beer style) is that we’re now so interested in all the facets and possibilities of beer that something which had been quite happy to evolve over time now finds itself being pulled out of its timeline at various points, and offered up in the present. It’s like those old episodes of Doctor Who where you’d get three or four different doctors all meeting up. Every beer I’ve described above is a genuine, authentic, traditional British IPA – they should ideally all fit in the British style IPA category in the Brewers Association style guide.  But we’ve got:

  • London style 18th century IPA
  • Burton style 19th century IPA
  • American hopped traditional British IPA
  • Fully matured, warm conditioned and agitated IPA
  • Nineteenth century low strength IPA
  • Twentieth century session beer strength IPA

Six beer styles where there used to be one.  And if you were being responsible, you’d cross-reference things like the warm conditioning with the other ones to create even more.

But who would that help, apart for giving a stiffy to some guy in the Brewers Association?

They’re all genuine IPAs.  They all taste quite different.  Most of them are more similar to each other than they are to other beer styles.

I hope this demonstrates why beer style may be useful to a point, but if you pursue with the relentless classification and sub-groupings, it only leads to insanity or absolute indifference.

I’ll tell you my other thing a bit later unless you tell me to shut up about beer styles.

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What I did on my holidays

Post Cask Report launch, the Beer Widow and I took a much-needed week’s holiday and went to Majorca.

I’d heard that there were nice parts of it, that it wasn’t all Costa del Puke.  What I wasn’t expecting was for the vast majority of the island to be beautiful, with loads of fantastic historic towns and villages, with the seedier side of British and German holidaymaking confined to a few small strips of coastline.  It’s a wonderful place.

Admittedly it doesn’t start well, when this is what greets you even before passport control:

Oh.  Great. 
Spain has some great lagers.  They’re not finely structured Pilsners.  They don’t have a delicate nose of grassy, spicy Saaz hops.  But they come with a tight, creamy head, and they have flavour – a nice full-bodied sharp sweetness followed by a drying bitter finish.  There’s substance in the likes of Estrella and Cruzcampo.  They’re satisfying drinks.
We didn’t do much in Port de Pollensa.  We read books and sat on terraces along the unspoiled, pine tree-lined pathway along the bay shore, relaxing and gazing at sunsets like this one:
“Of course they were much better than this on board Europe you know.”
“Yes dear.”
Wary of the airport Carling ad, for the first few days I asked what the beer was whenever I ordered one, and it was always Estrella or Cruzcampo.  The latter soon emerged as my favourite, and we gravitated to the bars that served it.
And so I relaxed.  And I grew complacent.
On our fourth night we tried a new restaurant, and I just asked for a beer.  When it arrived in a Strongbow pint glass, an alarm bell started ringing in my head, but not quickly enough.  I took a mouthful of something that was thin and watery, and yet still managed to taste offensive – overly sweet and cloying, like watered down Cresta soda.  
“That’s Fosters,” I spluttered, to an eye-rolling Beer Widow.
The thing is, I can actually drink Carling.  If you haven’t yet had a beer that day, so your palate hasn’t yet been woken to the flavour profile it expects, Carling is merely bland.  It’s unremarkable but inoffensive, like a sense memory of a decent beer that you almost evoke, but not quite. Whereas Foster’s is one of those special beers that manages to be bland and actively taste foul at the same time.  I’ve never been able to understand how they do that.
But that wasn’t the worst part.
The worst part was that later, when I went inside to the loo.  I walked past the bar and saw that there were two draught beer fonts: Fosters (so I had identified it correctly – get me) and next to it, Cruzcampo.
My heart sank.  Because this meant that when I’d ordered my Cerveza with a heavy English accent, the waiter hadn’t even bothered to explain that there was a choice of beers, and ask me which I would like.  He’d simply heard my accent, and assumed that I would be a Foster’s drinker.  I was English.  Therefore I would want the shit, English beer rather than the halfway decent Spanish one.  He knew this.  He didn’t even have to ask.
When I wrote about Chodovar I wondered why we Brits actively choose to drink shit quality lager.  I pointed out that well made lagers were no more challenging or difficult to get into, no less fizzy or refreshing.  They were just nicer.  Now, more depressing than that, we actually insist on taking our inferior beer abroad with us, and drinking it when there is a much nicer beer waiting there for us.  I’m sure it costs more to buy Foster’s in Spain than Cruzcampo, and there’s simply no comparison between them.  Depressing.
To cheer myself up, we went to the offie.  I was hoping to find a decent Fino or Madeira.  I failed, but we found something much better – the two best spirits brands I’ve ever seen.
First up, here’s Capitan Huk rum:

I’ve no idea who makes this.  I’m guessing it’s not Diageo.
This is one of the best brands I have ever seen in my life.  I can imagine the meeting that gave birth to it. Translated from the Spanish, it went roughly as follows:
“OK, so we’re going to launch a rum. How should we brand it?”  
“Well, the history of rum is tied inextricably with the British navy.  If we’re going to sell this to holiday-making Brits, that would be a good association to evoke.  They’re always wearing England shirts and that, so if we create a sort of naval ensign flag that combines the Union Jack and the St George’s Cross we’re onto a winner!”
“Brilliant!  Let’s do it! So who shall we get to draw the label then?”
“How about my eight year old son?”
“Brilliant!  Does he know what the Union Jack looks like?”
“OK, but given that we’re investing a sizeable amount of money in launching a new brand, should we at least perhaps give him some visual reference so he gets it at least partly accurate?”
“No, fuck it, I’ll just describe vaguely what a Union Jack looks like, and then invest several thousand Euros in printing up the first thing he comes up with.”
“OK, cool.  So what about a name?  Something English and naval…”
“How about Captain Hook?”
“Wasn’t he a pirate in a children’s story, and therefore both fictitious and absolutely nothing to do with the British navy?”
“Ok, works for me.”
But Capitan Huk was not the best brand in that offie.  Oh no.  The best brand, high on the top shelf, out of reach without the use of a stepladder, was this muscular bad boy:
It says ‘Viking Ship’ on the bottom.  In case you don’t know what the drawing is.

LARSEN, the cognac of vikings.

The very concept of a ‘cognac of Vikings’ is wrong in so many different multi-layered ways, the person who dreamed it up can only be genius.

Every single part of the execution of that concept reinforces the original wrong-headedness of it.

The random inclusion of ‘fine champagne’ just to reinforce the quality cues.

Labelling it with ‘Viking Ship’ like a child would label his drawing.

‘Le Cognac des Vikings.’

I’m in mourning that I didn’t go out and get a stepladder and buy this, just so I could look at it every day when I needed to smile.

Sparkly hat
Anyway we had a great holiday, even if we did have to fly Ryanair.  At the airport on the way home we, along with a long, snaking queue of other budget holiday makers, used unstaffed check-in desks to weigh our bags and repack them to stay within the airline’s draconian baggage weight restrictions.  Here and there, items were discarded.  And in one waste bin, about half an hour’s queuing away from the one check-in desk Ryanair deigned to open, we saw this:


At some point, the glittery cowboy hat has replaced the Kiss-Me-Quick policewoman’s hat in British holidaymaking law, quickly and completely.  If a picture paints a thousand words, this one tells you the story of a thousand Mediterranean holidays, encapsulated perfectly.  The object itself.  The fact that it’s been discarded.  The fact that it was only discarded minutes before check-in.

Did its owner intend to take it home then change her mind? Or did it symbolise her holiday, and was she clinging to that holiday till the last possible second?

Did she think “Oh I can’t be arsed to take this on board now I think about it,” or did she think, “I can’t bear to part with you, and all that you represent.  But I must.  For tomorrow I have to go back up Tesco’s.”

The tanlines fade.  But the pint of Carling will always be there for us.

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What now?

I must be losing my touch.

This ad is obviously a few years old, but I only just became aware of its existence.

If you’re familiar with it and your reaction is “Oh keep up grandad”, I invite you to move along quickly.

If it’s new to you, however, this is a banned ad from the successful ‘no nonsense’ campaign that ran in the early noughties, when Peter Kay was fresh and interesting and when large ale brewers still made some kind of serious attempt to sell their beers.

Ah, those were the days…

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The Cask Report

Have spent most of the day in a radio studio doing syndicated interviews about the Cask Report, which we’re launching today.  This means the Report, which I was hoping to put up here as an exclusive here earlier today, has already been picked up by several bloggers which, along with some favourable national media coverage, is great stuff.
Regular readers of this blog will know I’m hardly a cask ale purist.  I regularly criticize people who are.  But cask ale is the most misunderstood of beers.  And it was cask ale brewers who got together and decided we needed an industry report on their part of the beer market.  I’m proud to write the report each year, and to be a spokesperson for cask ale when the report comes out. 
This year’s report contains great news for cask ale brewers and pubs that sell it.  In fact, it’s the best news we’ve had in the four years I’ve been doing the report: 
  • 5% value growth versus 2% value decline for beer overall.
  • Volume steady versus 4% volume decline for beer overall – the first time since 1994 that cask volume hasn’t fallen.
  • 120,000 new drinkers taking total cask drinkers to 8.6 million
  • 4% increase in distribution, with 3000 new pubs stocking cask
  • Average age of the cask drinker is getting younger – 17% increase in 18-24 year-old drinkers.

This in an amazing performance given the general state of pubs and the collapse of volume in the beer market as a whole.
But despite the fact that many people simplify this good news into “cask is growing”, actually it’s not.  Cask’s fantastic performance is great news for drinkers, but good as it is, it’s still only static in volume terms.  That’s because most cask ale drinkers only drink it infrequently, and average throughput of cask ale (in line with beer generally) is down 5 per cent.  
I have a tiny worry that in spreading the good news about cask, we might make drinkers, brewers and pubs complacent, that all you need to do is stick a few handpulls on the bar and everything will be sorted.  
It doesn’t work like that.
In the beer world, we spend time with other like-minded people.  The brewers and publicans I speak to are all doing really well, but that’s because they work hard developing beers, keeping them in great condition, and telling people how good they are.  It doesn’t happen automatically.  46% of the UK population have still never tried cask ale.  Only 18% of drinkers claim to drink it on a regular basis.  People still don’t know that much about it.  
It’s important that anyone who loves cask ale who reads the report (downloadable here in full) reads the warnings as well as the fantastic news on cask’s resurgence.
Look, I just do as I’m told.