Tag: Beer

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Why I’ve finally joined CAMRA

Well there we are.  I’ve set up the direct debit and got my membership number.

This is in some ways a ‘hell freezes over’ moment for me, and there are traces of discomfort around the edges of my decision.  But it was the right thing to do.

What’s the big deal?  Many of my readers (and friends) simply assume I’m a CAMRA member already, given what I do.

A few words of explanation for people who may have started following me more recently:

Back in the day, when I wrote my first book, Man Walks into a Pub, I earned a bit of notoriety by attacking CAMRA in its pages.  I have carried on attacking them – albeit with declining frequency – ever since.  With hundreds of beer blogs now, many written by younger, craft beer fans, there’s nothing unusual these days about seeing CAMRA slagged for being out of touch, blinkered, too set in its ways etc.  But at the time I wrote MWIAP, in ye olde pre-beer blogging, pre-social media days, you didn’t do that.  I was unable to find anything else in print at the time about CAMRA that deviated from the line that cask beer was facing extinction until they came along, and then they arrived, and saved the world.

I was a big real ale fan, but I also drank mainstream lager (there wasn’t much else between them back then.)  When I went to CAMRA beer festivals I felt alienated.  It came across as a clique – one that I really didn’t want to be part of.  There was a sneering, condescending attitude towards people who drank lager – and as I keep saying, calling someone an idiot has never been a great strategy for persuading them round to your point of view.  There was that social stereotype of the socially inadequate, visibly outlandish beer nerd, with his big belly, beard, opaque glasses, black socks and sandals, and leather tankard on his belt.  I didn’t want anyone to think that just because I was writing about beer, I was one of those people.  (Distressingly, in the last ten years I’ve grown to look more similar to this stereotype than I would like.  But beards are trendy now.  As for the belly, well, I need to so something about that.  The rest of it, mercifully, remains at a distance.)

I wanted no part of a world view that denied there was any such thing as good beer that wasn’t real ale.  It rankled when lager was unfailingly dismissed as ‘industrial yellow fizz’.  I gnashed my teeth whenever I picked up a book with a title like ‘Beers of Britain’, and brands like Carling weren’t even in the index.  OK, you might not like big mainstream brands, but saying you were writing about British beer and then pretending 70% of the market simply didn’t exist was childish.  Include them and dismiss them as crap in one line if you must, but really… I’d come away from events such as the Great British Beer Festival (not the ‘Great British Real Ale Festival’, note) feeling genuinely angry at the distorted picture it gave of British beer, and the contradictions that riddled CAMRA’s stance on “We’re the campaign for real ale, that’s our name, we can’t support anything else (oh, except if we feel like campaigning for cider, oh and Budvar.)”

I shared many of CAMRA’s beliefs.  But I felt I couldn’t sign my name to an organisation that believed real ale was the only beer worth drinking.  The emphasis on format and container rankled whenever I thought about it.

So what’s changed?  Is this a sell out, a kind of tiny scale inversion of Bob Dylan going electric?

Well, the nerds are still there, and I’m still uncomfortable about people at parties thinking I’m one of them when I tell them what I do.  And some of those issues I objected to are arguably more prevalent than ever, now craft beer has expanded beyond real ale to incorporate quality drinks of all shapes, sizes, formats and containers (jeez, even canned beer is good nowadays).  And CAMRA still refuses to change its stance on campaigning for real ale, and only real ale (unless they feel like bending the rules for cider, Budvar, etc.)  I still have fundamental disagreements with them on major policy directions.  I still think they often present an image that’s by turns cheesy, out of date and out of touch, and sometimes pompous and arrogant.

But many things are different now.

I could talk about how CAMRA’s membership has doubled since I started writing about beer, but the number of outlandish nerds hasn’t, about how CAMRA’s membership is broader, younger, more female, more inclusive now.

I could talk about how key figures such as CEO Mike Benner and magazine editor Tom Stainer talk nothing but good sense whenever they open their mouths, or how branch chairmen like Tandleman present a moderate view that, even if I sometimes disagree with, I can see the point of, and how these are all great people to enjoy a beer with.

I could reflect on the fact that 140,000 people represents a very broad church and a huge spread of opinions, that there is no monolithic ‘CAMRA’ to rail against, and that every time I criticise aspects of CAMRA there are many members who agree with me.

I could point out that there is a new rhetoric coming from a senior level, along the lines that a Campaign FOR Real Ale does not mean a Campaign AGAINST Other Beers, that even if CAMRA does not act for other great types of beer, it doesn’t (or rather, shouldn’t) act against them, and that while there are still some dinosaurs with positions of influence within the organisation who don’t reflect this official stance, I am as ‘for’ real ale as I am ‘for’ any other type of craft beer (because real ale is one type of craft beer – of course it is).

I could admit that for the last four or five years I’ve really, really enjoyed the Great British Beer Festival, despite its Gordian knots of logic and bureaucracy.

And I could argue that, as a writer who likes to campaign for great beer when it is being attacked or derided, when pubs are being hammered by successive governments and beer is still, for the most part, either ignored or scapegoated by the press, it’s important to stop playing Judean People’s Popular Front and recognise that what unites us is more important than what divides us.  This is what I’ve been preaching at industry conferences and in the trade press for a while now, and my own anti-CAMRA stance is increasingly at odds with what I’m saying.

I could promise to campaign from within, and try to justify my decision by saying that I’ll continue my criticism at conferences and AGMs, where it might have more effect. (But I’m not sure I have the time or the will for that.)

I could say all these things to justify my about-face.

But while I’m not saying any of that is untrue, or not a factor, the real reason I’m joining CAMRA is that being a member is the only bleeedin’ way I can get hold of BEER magazine, which now goes out to members only, and is the only consumer-oriented beer publication in the UK, and pretty much the only publication on beer of any description that I always read cover to cover when I can scrounge a copy from Tom.  I give in.  I surrender.  OK, I’ll join your bloody organisation.  Just send me the magazine.

Please?

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Someone (formerly?) at Diageo is probably having trouble sitting down at the moment…

It’s the drinks PR omnishambles that makes George Osborne look like a competent chancellor.

Brew Dog have long been known for their spectacular PR stunts, but the storm that broke on Twitter today seemed breathtaking even by their standards.

In this sensational statement, Brew Dog claimed that at the Scottish BII Awards last weekend, Brew Dog were voted clear winners of the Bar Operator of the Year Award.  They knew this because the judges were sitting at their table and told them so.  So everyone was surprised when another company’s name was read out, with judges saying, ‘That’s not possible.’

The plot thickened when the ‘winners’ took the stage and refused to accept the trophy because it had Brew Dog’s name engraved on it!

Later, according to Brew Dog, the BII phoned and said this had happened because Diageo, the main sponsors of the award, had threatened BII officials, warning them that any future sponsorships would be cancelled if the award was presented to Brew Dog.

Another stunt?

Well… no.  Brew Dog are famous for stunts, but this would be suicide if it were not true.  And this was all about the bars – say what you like about the sensationalism of the head honchos, love or hate the brand, but as I’ve said repeatedly, the bars are about nothing but genuine passion and hard work.  Could this really be spin and exaggeration?

No, it couldn’t.

I asked Diageo for a statement, and here it is:

“There was a serious misjudgement by Diageo staff at the awards dinner on Sunday evening in relation to the Bar Operator of the Year Award, which does not reflect in anyway Diageo’s corporate values and behaviour.

“We would like to apologise unreservedly to BrewDog and to the British Institute of Innkeeping for this error of judgement and we will be contacting both organisations imminently to express our regret for this unfortunate incident.”
I’ve got more to say about the increasingly shameless bullying and anticompetitive tactics employed by some (but not all) big brewers, but this one really takes the biscuit.  Diageo, having been caught red handed, had no option but to blame it on a rogue element, and we must take them at their word.  But does this reveal something deeper about the attitudes of some global brewing corporations?

Brew Dog’s facility with social media means that the hashtag, #andthewinnerisnot, was trending globally by early afternoon.  Would Diageo have rushed out this grovelling apology before the advent of social media?  I’m not sure they would.  We may well look back on this as the start of the tables turning in how different types of brands manage their media.  We live in a very transparent and interconnected world these days – interesting times, as the Chinese would say…

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The Session no.63: May the fourth be with you!

The Session is a monthly event for the beer blogging community which was started by Stan Hieronymus at Appellation Beer. On the first Friday of each month, all participating bloggers write about a predetermined topic. Each month a different blog is chosen to host The Session, choose the topic, and post a roundup of all the responses received. For more info on The Session, check out the Brookston Beer Bulletin’s nice archive page.


At long last, I’ve got round to hosting a session.  It’s my turn to come up with a topic that will inspire beer bloggers around the world to write on the same day about the same subject.

But what should that topic be?

There’s always a danger with something like this that you become navel gazing or self-congratulatory, that you might sit round in a big mutual circle jerk and say, ‘Look at all us beer bloggers.  Aren’t we marvellous?  Aren’t we important?’

And then there’s the danger that you might take something that’s of passing interest in beer and magnify it to a far greater degree of importance than it should have.  That we might start to debate the finer points of differences between beer styles or discuss at length the virtues of a particular hop.  When I first encountered the beer world, I found such discussions crashingly dull.  I often have to remind myself that I still do.

Or worse, we might write about beer blogging instead of beer.  I’ve been guilty of that many times in the past.  Occasionally it has its place.  But every time, I’m brought up short by the real world, and I realise just how few people ‘out there’ ever read beer blogs, apart from other beer bloggers, I suspect this is why.

My approach to beer writing is by no means the only approach, but I write to try to encourage other people to share the simple joy of beer as much as I do, to switch on people who drink beer but don’t particularly care about it that much, to suggest to them that there’s so much more they might enjoy.  No one says you have to do it this way, and no one ever made me the spokesperson for beer.  It’s just how I decided to write, in the same way others decided to write in an opinionated way about what they love, and what they hate.

So in that spirit, my choice of topic – with 62 topics already covered – is this: simply, the Beer Moment.

What is it?

Well, what is it to you?  What does that phrase evoke for you?

That’s the most important thing here.  Switch off and float downstream, what comes to mind?  Don’t analyse it – what are the feelings, the emotions?

I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot recently, because I’ve been talking about it to various people who are working hard to try to improve the image of beer in the UK.  Because whether we articulate it or not, whether we drink vile, sunstruck Corona or barrel aged imperial stout brewed with weasel shit, it’s about the moment far more than the liquid itself.  The only people who disagree with me on this are people I wouldn’t want to share a beer with.

The moment – for me – is relaxation, reward, release, relief and refreshment.  It’s a moment to savour, a moment of mateship, potential, fulfilment, anticipation, satisfaction, and sheer bliss.

It’s different from the moment you drink wine or spirits – it’s more egalitarian, more sociable.  It’s not just about the flavour, nor the alcohol.  It’s about the centuries of tradition and ritual, the counterpoint to an increasingly stressful life, and the commonality, the fact that it means the same thing to so many.

At least – I think it does.  What does it mean to you?

This session takes place on Friday 4th May (giving me the prefect excuse to use the tired but still irresistible headline above.)  You don’t have to take part.  But if you want to, have a think, and write on Friday 4th about whatever comes to mind when you see the words ‘The Beer Moment’.

If you do it as a blog post, please send me a link, and afterwards I’ll do a round-up of who said what.  Or if you prefer, just leave a comment below.

Cheers.

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In search of a Black Country Legend

“So you like beer then.”

“Yes.”

“What’s your favourite?”

“I don’t really have one.”

“Have you tried Bathams?”

“No.”

“Ah.  Well then.”

Some beers go beyond rationale analysis and objective evaluation, and attain mythic status.  The affection people have for them is not based simply on a hoppy aroma and firm malty base; it doesn’t have much to do with ingredients or flavour.  It transcends the liquid itself -or perhaps, that liquid becomes something divine and attracts all the clothing of religious devotion.

Westverleteren has it, though it’s carefully stage-managed by the Belgian monks who take pains to control its scarcity.  Timothy Taylor Landlord has it – a beer which excites old ale drinkers and new crafty beer drinkers alike, which elicits simple sighs from beer writers who have used up all the words they have in trying to describe its perfection.

These beers are revered.  I knew of them within about five minutes of entering the beer world.

But I happily published two books, made my mark with this blog, and gained at least one column in the pub trade press before I’d ever heard of Bathams.

I was doing some freelance advertising work with a bloke from Birmingham when I first had the conversation above.  I’ve since the same conversation about six times, each time with a native of Birmingham or the West Midlands.  Each time, my ‘no’ got a little less “No?” in that tone that goes up at the end as if to say, “Should I have?”, and a bit more “Nooooooo…” swooping down like a Messerschmitt in flames, defensive and frustrated and increasingly certain I was missing something special, fearing I was a lesser man, never mind a lesser beer writer, for not only having never drunk this beer, but for not having even seen any evidence of its existence apart from the word of an increasing number of Brummies who didn’t know each other, and therefore could not have been winding me up.

But I never see Bathams at festivals.  I never see anyone writing about it.  I don’t see it in shops.

Its acolytes try to describe its power to me.  It’s a session beer, they say.  But that doesn’t do it justice.  It’s more than that, it’s… oh, you just have to taste it, they say, and then, every time, they say, “Of course, there are only about five pubs in the world that sell it.  And they’re all in Birmingham and the West Midlands.”

The last person I had this conversation with was Charles Campion, food and drink writing legend and one of the most decent men on the planet.  And because Charles really is one of the most decent men on the planet, he resolved to put me out of my misery.  So a few weeks ago, nursing a brewers’ conference sized hangover, I found myself in the back of a car while Charles directed the Beer Widow to the Vine (or, if you’re in the know, the Bull and Bladder), the Batham’s brewery tap in the West Midlands.

It’s a cracking pub, one of those places that has withstood every single trend, technological development and interior design fad of the last thirty years.  It has carpets.  And separate rooms.  Aged banquettes that create a barrier between groups but still allow those groups to eye each other up.  A hierarchy so clear that as you walk in for the first time, you immediately know which rooms are open to you as a stranger, and which are not.  And a random collection of brilliant and nonsensical stuff on the walls that could keep you gawking for hours.

I was quite nervous when I got my first pint of Batham’s.  It’s made with Fuggles and Goldings hops, and contains invert sugar for a bit of extra sweetness.  It tastes quite sweet. And very nice.

I’ve noticed in some great session beers that the balance between malt and hops is not just about sensible balance, neither one being too extreme.  It’s about the combination, the mix of malt sweetness and hop fruitiness that combine to create a kind of glowing, floral perfume that hovers just above your palate.  This may sound horrible, cloying, sickly and effeminate, but is actually the opposite of all those things.  And Bathams does this very well.

But detailed analysis of the flavour is beside the point – that’s not what this beer is about.  It’s a beer that can be drunk easily and yet is satisfying, and it’s a beer that brings a smile to your face.  It doesn’t overwhelm you – you don’t have the first sip and go, “My God, that’s awesome!”  But the more you like it, the more you drink.  And the more you drink, the more you like it.

It also comes in bottles:

and I got to bring a few home with me.

This is not to be taken for granted.  Because over the weekend that followed this Friday night session, the stories began to come out.

You can’t find many places that sell these bottles, they say.  We visited one pub that does, but allegedly you have to take your empties back if you want some more, meaning it’s very difficult to get onto the Bathams ladder in the first place.

On cask, demand always outstrips supply, they say.  There are only certain pubs that get it, and these are known to serious drinkers.  Stocking Bathams wins a landlord instant admiration.  Some of these pubs have been known to order an extra cask, and then sell it on at a profit, on the thriving Bathams black market that exists in the West Midlands.

Weeks later, when I opened my final bottle at home, I wrote, ‘When you drink Bathams, it just make you feel NICE.’

That might sound like the most facile thing a beer writer has ever written.  But I believe there is truth and beauty in its simplicity.

I’m hanging on to the empties.

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Funky Cool Medina

The day I finally finished Shakespeare’s Local and pressed ‘send’ to the publishers, I was combining my final proof read with a  few long overdue brewery visits.

I spent the morning and early afternoon in Ilkley, at the ambitious new brewery that’s turning heads after just two and a half years and already straining at the seams of the new brewery site they moved into last year.

They’re quite shrewd, brewing a range of beers spanning from the light session beers beloved of the archetypal Yorkshire drinker, through to some pretty kooky experimental beers.

No prizes for guessing what they wanted to brew when they invited both me and Melissa Cole to brew within a few days of each other.

This was a proper ‘Collabrew’ (that’s my new word) in which I got to have real input into what we were brewing.  Ilkley wanted to brew a dark saison.  We both love saison for the hints of spice and farmyard funkiness they offer.  The thought behind this brew was sod hints, let’s go for full expression.  So we used a saison yeast, lots of pale malt, a hint of crystal and a bit of torrefied wheat and dehusked carafa malt, aiming for a target strength of 6% ABV.

We then got a bit of the wort and started muddling different varieties of hop in the glass, trying out different combinations. The Ilkley chaps wanted to stick some New World hops in, and I was looking for something with an orangey nose to complement everything else we were about to bung in.  We settled on Saaz hops for bittering, and Amarillo and Summit for aroma.

Finally, near the end of the boil we added 2kg of dried orange peel, 300g of ground coriander, 150g of ground ginger and 60g of grains of paradise – an intense, aromatic peppercorn.

This was going to be a big beer, the kind of beer that would walk up to a bar and get served before you, even though it was your turn.  The kind of beer that, if it was a dog, and you took it for a walk, would pull you along disobediently, hunkering down and dragging you with its muscly forelegs.

When I tasted it after the boil, the spices didn’t quite punch me in the face, but they did bunch my collar in their fists and hold me up against the wall.  Taste memories of North Africa flashed through my brain, and I jokingly tweeted that I suspected we had just invented a new beer style – Moroccan Saison.  And so Medina was named – a beer to warm the heart on cold Saharan nights, a beer whose rugged boldness would not suffer fools.

It didn’t work out like that – at least, not quite.

No one quite knows what happened in the fermenter.  Wonderful things happen in fermenting vessels all the time, and our understanding of what and why is still hazy at best.

As it matured, our bold, spicy beer became smooth, sophisticated and urbane.  It took a degree, started reading the classics and listening to Mahler.  When it came out the other end, it was still big and powerful – it would still muscle to the bar and get served before you.  But when it did, it would say, “No, I believe this gentleman was here before me.”

The finished beer suggests exoticism and travel, but with a refined air.  It’s incredibly smooth and silky, more like a chocolate porter than a saison.  That must come from the dehusked carafa – unless someone bunged in a load of chocolate malt when no one was looking.  But it’s amazing what a difference it made given that this dark malt made up less than 5% of the total malt bill.

That smoothness opens out into a gentle, subtle but rounded fruitiness in the mouth, with a touch of vanilla.  And then, the spices build in the way they do in a very good curry – gentle at first at the back of the mouth, then slightly more assertive, a dry, peppery spice that gives the palate a definite but quite polite buzz.

Melissa brewed a similarly outlandish ‘rhubarb saison’ called Siberia, which I got to taste briefly at Craft Beer Co when my beer launched there a couple of weeks ago.  I was a little hazy by that point (Medina is 6% and very drinkable, and I always make the mistake of thinking I’m drinking less of beers like that by drinking halves) but I remember it being deliciously fruity and aromatic.  You can read a little more detail on that at Melissa’s blog.

I was very chuffed to hear that Medina had sold out before it had even left the fermenter, and it’s been getting great feedback from those people lucky enough to get hold of some – I managed to get another pint down at the new Cask Pub and Kitchen in Brighton at the weekend.

What I liked most about these experimental beers was the sense of fun that went with them.  We had a great time brewing them and I certainly had a lovely time drinking them.  They’re not the most ‘out there’ beers I’ve had in recent weeks – I’ll be talking more about some other ones very soon – but I’ve been really enjoying pushing the flavour boundaries.

There is a degree of cynicism about beers like this in some quarters, and doubtless there will be a few outraged trainspotters either denying that a Moroccan Saison could ever exist, or struggling to find the right place for it in beer’s ever-expanding taxonomy.  Sod them – it was a great beer to brew, a great beer to drink, and it makes people happy, so I’m happy too.

Doubtless there is a little bit of Emperor’s New Clothes around some experimental corners of beer production – as Tandleman recently averred.  But I’ve recently been enjoying both experiments such as this, and the joys of the traditional session pint.  There’s so much binary, black-and-white thinking in the beer world (even the sub-editors of the above piece misrepresented it as an attack on experimental beer, when if you read what I wrote, it’s patently not).  We all love talking about how beer is such a wonderfully diverse drink.  What on earth is the problem with diversity?  And what’s the problem with stretching that diversity further?  If it’s a bad beer, it’s a bad beer.  Maybe it’ll be a good one next time.

Thanks to Ilkley for allowing me to co-create a very nice one indeed – I hope they brew it again soon.

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Greene King and Bombardier to go head to head on the telly

Real ale is about to burst onto our screens in a big way.

The week before last, two of the UK’s biggest ale brands launched their new advertising campaigns to beer writers and trade journalists.  I was invited to one launch but, for some reason, not the other one the day after – even though seemingly everyone else who was at the first one was.  Please believe me that this in no way colours what I’m about to say about these two campaigns.  I’m bigger than that.  No, really, I am, honest.  But I tell you this so you can filter the following for any perceived prejudice.

Anyway, I used to work in advertising so this, for me, is in part going back to the day job.

The second event – the one I wasn’t invited to – was launching the next wave in the new campaign for Well’s Bombardier.  Now, I get the feeling that I’m going to come across as disliking this development a lot more than I actually do, so let me say some positive things about it first, and hopefully this will prevent a hit squad being despatched from Bedford – home of William Charles Bedford, ‘your dashing hero on the battlefield, with a caddish twinkle in his eye,’ according to the press release (I am at least still on their email distribution list – at least until they read this.)

Basically, what they’re doing is extending the campaign they launched last year, with Rik Mayall playing the Bombardier, drinking the beer and extolling its virtues with what Well’s & Youngs clearly hope will become a pub catchphrase: ‘Bang on!’  They’re going for a heavyweight promotion on Dave, the channel for blokes who like repeats of the programme Stewart Lee refers to as ‘Mock the Weak’.  Ten and fifteen second idents will frame peak time programmes.  I haven’t seen the idents because like I said, I wasn’t invited to the launch, and didn’t get to meet Rik Mayall, but the press release says ‘viewers can expect to see the Bombardier’s take on the English sense of humour, values, our love of pubs and our social habits.’

They’re spending £5m on this, which is great news for Bombardier and great news for ale too.  It’s the highest ever spend they’ve put behind the brand (but not the highest ever spend in the ale category, as the press release falsely claims).  Whatever your views on the beer and the campaign, this is brilliant because it helps propel ale into the mainstream, makes it more visible and more contemporary.  When I do focus groups, many people assume that if a brand is on telly it must be good, must be doing something right, and this leads to greater social currency.  So here Bombardier are helping ale look more modern (with some caveats, below).  It’s also a great sign of confidence – they wouldn’t spend this money if they didn’t think cask ale was in good shape and people were ready to consider it.

Secondly, they’ve got with the programme and done a Facebook page and taken the Bombardier on to Twitter, extending a true brand property and providing content which people can interact with.  That’s a good thing as far as marketing, brand building, and the saliency of real ale is concerned.

But.

For me, this entire campaign feels like it’s aping lager ads of the seventies and eighties, and even lagers don’t behave like that any more.  Rik Mayall is reprising a character he played in Blackadder thirty years ago, in a slightly less funny way than it was then.  Is this really the way to make ale feel fresh, contemporary and appealing to new generations of drinkers?

To make my own mind up, I followed the link to the youtube channel at the bottom of the press release I was sent.  And I got this:

Woof woof! Bang Off, chaps!

The ads launch 16th April and run from 9pm to midnight weekdays for twelve months.

The other campaign is from Bombardier’s rival, Greene King.  Disliked by many readers of this blog and diehard ale drinkers in general, scorned for bland beers and nicknamed ‘Greed King’ for their sometimes voracious business practices, booed when they were runner-up Champion Beer of Britain a few years ago, they can sometimes come across as difficult to love, and have clearly been doing a bit of soul searching.

I think the results are a pleasant surprise.

Greene King IPA is the UK’s biggest cask ale brand.  It still only has a 7% market share – the diversity and fragmentation of the ale market is (most of the time) one of its main strengths. But GK IPA is, for better or worse, still the biggest brand.  I don’t tend to drink it myself, but clearly lots of people like it.  And like Magner’s does with cider, if it attracts people to real ale for the first time who then start to look around and trade up, that’s no bad thing.

In marketing theory, one classic strategy for the brand leader is to do a job that grows the whole market rather than trying to steal share form your competitors.  The theory is that if you’re already the biggest, advertising what’s good about the whole market means you benefit everyone else, but if the market grows proportionately then you’ll gain more in volume terms than everyone else does.  Most new entrants to any market tend to go for the biggest brands, so you’ll probably grow disproportionately, benefiting everyone but, most of all, yourself.

This is the strategy GK has chosen, and I think it’ll paid off.

They’ve created an ad that quite simply celebrates the joys of good cask beer in a good pub – not the joys of hops and malt and yeast, but the moment that beer – and only beer – can create.

This has always been what’s excited me most as a writer, and it’s lovely to see a brand that has wonga to spend and an ad agency with creative skill taking this aspect of beer and celebrating it.  It’s an ad for the pub as much as it is an advert for beer or Greene King IPA specifically, and I think it’s rather fucking wonderful:

I particularly like the opening, in the cellar – just enough beer craft for the mainstream viewer without getting too technical or boring.  Even if you don’t understand what you’re seeing, you get the impression of craft and care, the sense that this is something a bit more special than what you can buy in the supermarket.

The ad was shot in the Hornsey Tavern, north London, and the music is by a precocious eighteen year-old called Jake Bugg, who is to my ears like Ed Sheeran, only good.  The gaffer is an actor, but many of the people are real punters, sharing real beer moments.  The finished ad has been culled from about five hours of footage, the film crew just passing through the pub as people relaxed and shared a good time having a beer.  It’s the kind of positive image of beer and pubs the whole industry sorely needs more of.

GK is spending £4m behind this, and it’s breaking on 14th and 15th April, during the FA Cup semi-finals on ITV and ESPN.  It’s also going to be on Sky and Dave.

Coinciding with this, they also launched two new beers under the Greene King IPA brand: IPA Gold, a 4.1% golden ale, and IPA reserve, a 5.6% rich, mellow, fruity ale.  For anyone who drinks or works in a Greene King pub, these beers are welcome additions.  The golden ale is a golden ale, no better or worse than many in the market just now, while the reserve is in Fullers ESB territory, and dangerously drinkable.  They won’t set RateBeer alight, but they’re not meant to – that’s not what they’re for.  But they are quite drinkable beers that bring Greene King’s portfolio a bit closer to what drinkers want.

My only, obvious, quarrel is that, already under fire for calling a 3.6% session beer IPA, they’ve now brought out two new beers that are very different from the original, obviously not India Pale Ales in any shape or form, and called them India Pale Ales.  This reveals that as far as Greene King is concerned, IPA is a brand name and not a beer style.  I could just about defend the mainstream GK IPA because while it’s not a traditional IPA, IPA is an evolving style and in the mid-twentieth century this is what it was to most brewers and drinkers in the UK.  But by calling these new beers IPA rather than just ‘Greene King Blonde’ or ‘Greene King Reserve’, GK have created a needless rod for beer enthusiasts to beat them with – a silly own goal at a time when they’re doing some big things right.

GK has also launched an attractive Facebook page to support the campaign.

One tip to both brands: Facebook is an interactive medium.  If people ask you if it’s possible to buy Bombardier in North America or who did the music on the IPA ad, it’s good manners and good business sense to reply.  Don’t fall into the trap of bigger brands who pretend to be there on Facebook but don’t actually read or respond to comments, thereby actively alienating some of your biggest fans.  oh hang on – EDIT – GK actually did respond.

I’m anticipating many tiresome comments about how both these beers are shit, boring and bland, made by big corporations, and that it’s a bad thing they’re on TV.  My answer to that would be that these beers, and these ads, are not aimed at people who write beer blogs and drink in craft beer bars.   We’re fine – we don’t need to be told that real ale is a decent drink or that pubs are nice places to be.  No one who is already drinking great craft beer is going to suddenly start switching to Bombardier or Greene King IPA as a result of these ads.  The useful job that big brands can do is bring more novices into ale for the first time – and remind people how great pubs are.  With nearly £10m being spent advertising real ale over the next few months, this is fantastic news for beer as a whole – whatever you choose to drink yourself.

Cheers to both of them.  Especially the second one.

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Odessa in London

Almost a year ago now I went down to Otley Brewing in South Wales and did a brew with them.  Unlike many collaborative brews, they made me come up with the recipe, select the hops and everything.  When I co-created Brew Dog’s Avery Brown Dredge with Zak and Mark, they did most of the work and I just said things like, “Yes. very good.” This time I was on my own.  Nowhere to hide.  (There’s a nice video of the brew day of you follow the link above).

Inspired by Martin Dickie’s ginger nuts (we were very hungover) I decided I wanted to brew an imperial stout with ginger.  And chocolate.  And then mature it in whisky casks for a year.You may say that’s showing off.  I say it was cruising for a fall.  As I kept chucking handfuls of crystallised ginger and Belgian chocolate drops into the copper when Nick Otley wasn’t looking (unaware that Nick was doing the same when I wasn’t looking) I was genuinely worried it wouldn’t work.

For ten months, some of this beer sat in bourbon barrels and some in mead barrels.  Nick finally tasted it last weekend and after he stopped saying ‘wow!’ (which took a while) he said it was pitch black, and very warming.

Tomorrow you get a chance to see if we pulled it off or whether I should stick to writing rather than brewing.  Odessa Imperial Stout is launching in four London pubs, and Nick and I are touring them to give it a try in each one.  Each pub gets either the whisky or the mead finish, randomly chosen.  So if you can, it’s worth trying at least three pubs.  The beer will of course be on sale all day until it runs out.  But if you want to see me or Nick (save the difficult questions for him) our rough timetable is as follows:

1.       The White Horse, Parsons Green, between 1pm & 2pm
2.       The Rake, Borough, between 3pm & 4pm
3.       The Jolly Butchers, Stoke Newington, between 5pm & 6pm
4.       The Southampton Arms, Kentish Town, between 7pm & 8pm

I’ll be tweeting events for as long as I can focus.  Though after the first couple of pints of this stuff, I may well ask someone to take my phone off me.

See you there!

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Some thoughts on writing about beer history

As I emerge from the British Library, blinking like a mole in the winter sun, I see Martyn Cornell has been doing what he enjoys best, demolishing a passing historical claim that someone else has made.

There was a spat before Christmas about the excellent Oxford Companion to Beer.  Many in the beer blogosphere were queueing up to find errors and cite them as proof that the book is worthless, or at the very least, deeply flawed.  This turned into a rather worrying witch hunt where almost any positive mention of the OCB online was rooted out and lambasted (one beer writer was even attacked on his Facebook page for posting that he was looking forward to reading it).

My response to this was along the lines of ‘of course there are errors – but if you take the thing as a whole, it’s a great piece of work’.  This was (mis)interpreted by some as me saying that errors didn’t matter, and the pursuit of truth, of fact, in beer history was unimportant.

That is not what I meant at all.  If I did mean that, I wouldn’t, for example, have spent all day yesterday in the London Metropolitan Archives reading through letters sent between brewers Flower & Sons and their lawyers regarding their taking over the lease of the George Inn, Southwark – something that will surely take only a line or two in my new book, but which I took a thousand words of notes on, because I want to make sure I get it absolutely right.

What I do think, though, after spending nearly a year doing research that is as forensic and detailed as I can possibly do on the history of coaching inns, pubs in general and one pub in particular, is that some who are interested in the history of beer are in danger of strangling the study of it by imposing standards that are too strict, that are tighter than any proper academic historian would insist upon.

If you’re not that bothered about the study of beer history, please stop reading now, because you’re going to get really bored if you don’t.

First, a few caveats:

One, I greatly admire the work that people like Martyn Cornell and Ron Pattinson do.  I know from great experience myself that it’s not exactly easy, fun or rewarding to trawl through historical documents in search of the truth.  It’s much easier to simply cite what some bloke said in a book eighty years ago without checking where he got it from.  Standards of beer scholarship are improving, and people like Martyn and Ron are playing a significant role in this.

Two, I don’t want to excuse errors – where they are in fact errors, as opposed to differing interpretations.  And I’m not here to defend the OCB’s entry on the yard of ale.  I actually agree with Martyn that the original yard of ale entry in OCB looks like it’s wrong, though I believe that it’s the result of a simple confusion with the ‘stirrup cup’, which is a similar shape to the yard, but smaller – still wrong and in need of correction, but not exactly the biggest controversy ever to rear its beery head.

Three, although this post was prompted by Martyn’s latest, it shouldn’t be read (just) as a criticism of Marytn – he makes points similar to those below towards the end of his post, and I agree with a lot of what he says there.  What follows has been inspired by Martyn’s post – and other comments he’s made previously – rather than being a direct rebuttal.  I’m sure he would agree with much of what follows.

With those out of the way, my main beef is this: there seems to be a growing view that if there isn’t definite, written, primary source proof of something, than we cannot assert that it is true in an historical context, and we shouldn’t be saying it.

I’m sorry, but that’s just not right.  If real historians behaved like this, we wouldn’t have any history at all.

Having come fresh from the coalface, here’s how written historical sources work: since the mid-twentieth century and the age of mass communication, you can find lots of references to pretty much anything if you know where to look.  The biggest problem facing future historians looking at the early 21st century will be too much material relating to any subject, not too little.

Go back to the nineteenth century, and it’s a bit harder.  There are newspapers and magazines – quite a lot of them – and if you’re lucky enough to find databases that have them as word-searchable PDFs, you can fillet all mentions of your chosen subject from tons of last century’s chip paper within minutes.  The trouble is, you know how now, the mainstream press don’t write much about beer?  Well, they didn’t much then, either.  For example, over 99.9% of the 16,000 mentions of ‘India Pale Ale’ in the Burley Collection of 18th and 19th century newspapers are in the classified ads section, and while the first few you look at are very revealing (that’s where I discovered the earliest actual mention of ‘India Pale Ale’ for example) after that, they’re all the same.

Go back before that, and most of the population were illiterate.  Newspapers die out altogether when you reach the seventeenth century.  Now it gets trickier.  There’s the odd diarist whose work has survived, which is why if you read anything historical about the seventeenth century (including my new book) you will unfailingly discover what John Evelyn and Samuel Pepys thought about the subject at hand.

Before that, anything that the Church had direct involvement in, you’re laughing, because they kept copious records of everything.  Anything the monarch did, you’re on safe ground.  But social history?  Stuff that everyday people did?  That gets tricky.  There are legal records if your subject got into trouble.  But unless the Church or the law were interested, written records start to become very thin on the ground.  You’re relying on diarists, the odd pamphleteer (who usually had a particular view on his subject – many of our best descriptions of Elizabethan alehouses come from Puritans who thought they were the ‘nests of Satan’) and the occasional, isolated traveller or chronicler, and you kind of have to go with what those individuals say.

In terms of tangible fact, this is then supplemented by archaeological evidence.  This is incredibly useful.  But foodstuffs, clothing and almost anything else soft and perishable haven’t survived.

Our accurate record of what Elizabethan theatres looked like inside rests on a one page description and a drawing done by a Swiss traveller in 1594 – the rebuilt Globe Theatre relied on this, and the partial foundations of the original.  There are three surviving portraits which we think are William Shakespeare, and scant references to him in legal documents.  There isn’t even a definitely agreed version of his complete works, as whole plays were rarely copied.  Bill Bryson set out to write a book on Shakespeare that just stuck to the known facts.  It’s less than 200 pages long, and he’s padded it out with all sorts of more general stuff about Elizabethan England.  And this is Shakespeare – not some pub, brewery or drinking custom.

So when primary source stuff gets thin, what do you do?

You do not ‘make things up’.

But you do become flexible.

Martyn regularly pours scorn on historical claims that are made long after the fact.  But the first real account of the Battle of Hastings (leaving aside the Bayeux Tapestry) was written by William of Malmesbury over a century after to happened, and historians accept it as definitive.  Historians haven’t always provided academic references and footnotes – that doesn’t mean their work is invalid.  Also, when most people were illiterate, much history was handed down orally before someone put it to paper.  Inevitably, this introduces an element of Chinese Whispers.  But it’s that or nothing – and academic historians, while not always accepting such accounts as gospel (now there’s an interesting example) will usually at least take the gist of it to be true, or use it as a guide.  So while I’m not saying (because I don’t believe) that the yard of ale was invented for stage coach drivers, I am arguing that the fact that this claim wasn’t made until the 1950s is not on its own sufficient grounds to dismiss it.

Martyn’s other maxim is along the lines of ‘the first law of history is don’t assume’.  I’d like to see where these universally agreed laws of history are written down, and have a look at what the others are, because in the history I’ve been reading – mostly books written by academics who work in history departments in reputable universities – educated, reasoned assumptions are being made all the time.  ‘Could’, ‘might’, ‘perhaps,’, ‘possibly’ and ‘maybe’ are some of the most popular words in academic history.  Where I would agree with Martyn 100% is that if it is a ‘could’ or a ‘might’, any writer – especially one working on something as illustrious as the OCB – has an obligation to make this clear rather than writing ‘was’ or ‘did’, and this is a sin of mine that I’ve now resolved to fix. But I’d argue that this is the main area where standards need to be improved.  The simple ‘there’s no written evidence so we must assume it’s wrong’ approach simply is not how history works.

These issues have particular relevance for the study of beer and pubs, because at the time, a lot of this shit just didn’t get written down.  Whenever the yard of ale was invented, and for whatever purpose, no one whose work survives thought it worth recording.  So what are you going to do?  It obviously was invented by someone, at some point, so we are not wrong to speculate on what did happen.

If we don’t, we reduce history to virtually nothing.  And we have to look in a broader context.  That first mention of ‘India Pale Ale’ came at least seventy years after strong, hoppy pale had been exported to the Indian market – so how can we assert when this beer called ‘IPA’ first appeared?

The now pretty-much dismissed claim that George Hodgson began exporting pale ale to India in 1785 is based on this being the date it was first advertised in the Calcutta Gazette.  But the reason it wasn’t advertised before then is not that the beer didn’t exist in India, but that the Calcutta Gazette didn’t.  So when did Hodsgon first export his beer?

Another useful example for me is the story that IPA was first introduced to Britain in 1827 when a ship bound for India was shipwrecked off Liverpool, the casks washed up on the beach, and were auctioned by the ship’s insurance company, and the locals loved the beer and started demanding it at home.  Martyn has dismissed this as ‘myth’ because the claim was made fifty years after the fact, and it’s not mentioned anywhere else.  He says it never happened. Now, if we’re talking about how IPA was introduced to Britain, I totally agree.  A quick look at Peter Matthias’s brilliant brewing history shows that Bass and Allsopp were advertising pale ales domestically in the early 1820s.  In the 1830s, IPA became popular in Britain among families returning from India.  Hodgson, while being squeezed out of the Indian market, saw an opportunity back home and started advertising his beer as the taste of India.  But to say the shipwreck never happened?  That’s an even bolder claim than the original assertion.  Visit any Cornish coastal pub, for example, and you’ll find walls decorated with facsimiles of posters advertising auctions of cargo from shipwrecks from the early nineteenth century.  They happened all the time – surely at least one of these auctions would have included India-bound beer.  I’m certain that the 1827 shipwreck did happen, that India-bound beer was sold to Scousers and that they loved it.  After all, why would anyone simply make up such a story from their imagination?  But this is not how IPA was introduced to Britain.  It’s an important distinction in how we read historical data, how we interpret it.

Writing history is all about interpretation, and we have to make assumptions, especially when studying the history of the beer and pubs.  For example, I will be claiming that inn-yard theatre happened in the George Inn, Southwark, despite a complete lack of evidence that it did.  Why?  Because there are records of it happening in inn-yards across London and all over the country.  It often happened when there was a big fair.  It happened in larger inn-yards.  The George had  a large inn-yard.  Southwark Fair was one of the biggest fairs in the country.  Plays happened in the yard of the Queens Arms just down the road.  Therefore, I can assume, with a high degree of confidence, that plays also happened in the George.

One final point – and forgive me if this sounds defensive.  As a historian, you have an obligation to be as thorough in your research as you can be.  But as a writer aiming at a mainstream audience, you have an obligation to be as readable and interesting as you can be.  For the mainstream writer, in any discipline, it’s a balance between the two, and Bryson’s Shakespeare is a perfect example of how to do it brilliantly.  Just because the detail isn’t on the page in front of you, doesn’t mean it’s not there.

At the end of Martyn’s yard of ale post he gives a brilliant acknowledgement that we cannot research every single last fact back to primary sources, so I don’t think we’re that far apart in the overall scheme of things.

But please – even on the big stuff, sometimes, just because there is no primary source, that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.  Sorry, but that’s not how history works.

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If you’ve read this far, then you’re obviously pretty interested in beer history.  So I’d just like to give a plug to the Brewery History Society.  Membership is only £15 a year, and you get a lot for your money. Martyn is on the editorial board so he would definitely agree with me on this!

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The Rules of Drinking

There’s light at the end of the tunnel.  Switching metaphors at the points, if it were a loaf of bread, you’d just be able to see it start to rise.
It’s been a very long three months, but on NYE I printed off a rough, shaky first draft of my next book.  The chapters that aren’t quite finished are bloody awful.  The chapters that are finished are pretty good – or at least, my long-suffering editor and wife think so.  And I have two weeks left to kick, bitch-slap, coax, polish, persuade, trick and massage the rest of it into shape.
This week, then, represents a partial return to the blogosphere.  Don’t try to pretend you missed me, now.
I’m ashamed to say my first post-book post is a shameless plug, but it is for something I think you’ll like.  
Last May I spent an afternoon in the Jolly Butchers with a BBC film crew.  I’d just about forgotten about it, and then I got a call this morning to say that the programme is finally going out this week.
It’s a Timeshift documentary called The Rules of Drinking, and it charts our relationship with booze, particularly since the Second World War.  Me and a chap called Iain Gately, whose book on the History of Drink you should have on your shelves, are the two main contributors, only you’re spared having to watch much of me by some fantastic archive footage they’ve found to go over the things we’re talking about.
Here’s the blurb, from BBC4:
Timeshift digs into the archive to discover the unwritten rules that have governed the way we drink in Britain.
In the pubs and working men’s clubs of the forties and fifties there were strict customs governing who stood where. To be invited to sup at the bar was a rite of passage for many young men, and it took years for women to be accepted into these bastions of masculinity. As the country prospered and foreign travel became widely available, so new drinking habits were introduced as we discovered wine and, even more exotically, cocktails.
People began to drink at home as well as at work, where journalists typified a tradition of the liquid lunch. Advertising played its part as lager was first sold as a woman’s drink and then the drink of choice for young men with a bit of disposable income. The rules changed and changed again, but they were always there – unwritten and unspoken, yet underwriting our complicated relationship with drinking.
The waspish and lovely Grace Dent gave the programme a fantastic write-up in the Guardian last Saturday,  acknowledging that there is such a thing as binge drinking, without being judgemental about it or trying to build it to a point of hysteria.  She concludes: