Tag: Beer

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A jolly weekend in Cockermouth (stop sniggering at the back)

Great weekend last weekend, but I have to slow down and get this damn book written.

After the Social Media Beer Tasting in Glasgow, I went down to the Lake District for Taste Cumbria.  They’re really doing an awful lot to promote Cumbria as a food and drink destination, and it’s working really well.

Friday night I stayed at the Kirkstile Inn just outside Cockermouth, one of those pubs where the thick stone walls, wood fires and silence outside save for the hiss of river and tree lull you to sleep like a baby.  Another reason to go there is that it’s the brewery tap for the Loweswater Brewery, also known as Cumbrian Legendary Ales.  Their Loweswater Gold was named Champion Golden Beer of Britain at this year’s Great British Beer Festival, and the only thing better than sinking a few pints of it would be doing so after tramping across some of the irresistible mountains just outside.  They were calling to me, I tell you. They just weren’t calling as loudly as the comfy seat by the fire, or my bed, or one other very noteworthy beer.

CLA also brew Croglin Vampire.

Completely out of keeping with a range of beers that’s very nice but nothing you wouldn’t expect from a Cumbrian brewer, Croglin Vampire is an 8% Doppelbock, rich and spiritous, dark and brandy-like, and utterly wonderful.  Currently the Kirkstile Inn is about the only place you can get it.  Don’t worry, it’s a worthwhile trip.  Just as well they have rooms.

Next day we were off into Cockermouth – yes, Cockermouth – for the festival itself.  This is where Jennings Brewery is.  Again, the beers are good quality but nothing that you wouldn’t expect here.  But I love the story of Jennings brewery.  I’m not an apologist for big regional brewers – I just have an open mind about them.  I find this quite an interesting place to be. When Jennings was bought by Marston’s in 2005, the local CAMRA branch shouted that Marston’s were going to close the brewery, and continued to shout this even when Marston’s invested £250,000 improving the brewery.  If Marston’s had the slightest intention of closing the brewery, they had the perfect excuse to do so when it flooded in 2009.

Photo: Vanessa Graham on www.visitcumbria.com

But they didn’t.  They invested millions getting it open again.  I don’t know if anyone still thinks Marston’s are going to close Jennings, but if anyone does think that, I’ve got some magic beans you might want to buy.

But I digress.  On the first day of the festival, Jeff Pickthall and I were doing a beer and food matching event.  We’re both a bit vague about organisational stuff, and so were Taste Cumbria, so we ended up with about two hours to put some pairing suggestions together from food and beer being exhibited at the festival.  Not everyone was keen to have their stuff featured.  It was like an episode of the Apprentice. But as people filed into the room, we were just about succeeding in putting plates together for the following:

Mitchell Krause Hefe Weizen with goats cheese from Wardhall Dairy

Hardknott Cueboid with smoked cured boar

Jennings Sneck Lifter with lovely raisin fudge from Duerdens Confectioners of Burnley

Coniston Brewery’s Blacksmith ale with an amazing chocolate cake from Ginger Bakers in Ulverston

(We swapped these two around – people were split on what went best)

The aforementioned Croglin Vampire with Parsonby, another cheese from Wardhall which has been rind-washed in The Black Galloway porter from Sulwath brewery.  Beer washed cheese is the future, if you like your cheese smelly and overpowering like I do.

Thanks to everyone who agreed to donate stuff for us.  Amazingly, despite time constraints, exploding hefe weizen bottles and seventy extra people turning up just when we thought we’d done enough plates of food, it all went rather well, and the matches were ace.

Later, we sampled the delights of Cockermouth nightlife.  And encountered the Boogie Bus:

The ‘Big Boogie Bus’ – does that mean there’s a little one somewhere?

As you can see, it’s a pink bus that has pole dancers and lap dancers and glowing dance floors inside it. It roams the streets of Cumbria, stopping to lure stag and hen parties on board.  Then it glows brightly, drives off, and the stag and hen parties are never seen or heard from again.

Jeff and I decided to pass.  Instead we roamed the pubs in search of good beer.  And finally, after trying everywhere else, we found Cockermouth’s perfect pub, a place I’d be happy to see in any town.

1761 is modern and stylish without trying too hard.  It has Guinness, Strongbow and Carlsberg on the pumps because that’s what people want.  But it also has a good selection of local cask ales, and a small but perfectly formed range of craft beers in bottles including Little Creatures, Orval, Duvel, and Pietra.

There isn’t a full kitchen, but they do something I wish more pubs would do – a small, simple tapas menu.  We had stuffed jalapeno peppers, a cured meat platter, cheese platter, and some chorizo cooked in wine, which formed a great alternative to the curry and Cobra we were planning on.

I write about 1761 because it deserves to be written about.  It’s not a fully fledged craft beer pub, but it’s a pub with aspirations that understands the needs of its local community, is independent, and friendly.  It’s not boring like some.  It’s not too raucous like others.  There should be more pubs like it.

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Cheers to International IPA Day

What a great opportunity to take stock.  What a smart use of social media.

Two tweeters decided it might be a nice idea to get the online beer community to have a global celebration of the craft beer world’s favourite beer style, and the day was set for today, 4th August.

As far as I can tell there is no central organisational structure, no big budget or organisation, and yet it’s an idea that has caught the imaginations of beer lovers and gone global.

So what are we supposed to do?  What actually happens?  That’s up to you.  It’s up to breweries, pubs and drinkers to organise tastings, drinking, events, whatever really.  A quick google search shows that many people across the planet have taken up the challenge.

Why IPA?  It’s a perfect meme for every aspect of beer appreciation.  It’s a definable style – even though that definition mutates continually over time.  It has a long, deeply chronicled history – and that history has given birth to more myths, mythbusting, speculation, misinterpretation and debate than anything else in beer.  It’s a perfect showcase for hops – the facet of beer that craft drinkers get most excited about.  And it’s the style that caught the imagination of the US craft beer movement, that symbolises it.  It’s the constant across the many styles craft brewers brew, a shop window for their craft.  The union of a traditional old-style IPA recipe and the tropical orchard of flavours and aromas bestowed by New World hops lit a fire in craft brewing that’s now burning world over.

For me, my first taste of an American IPA was the equivalent of my first taste of a real curry: it was like tasting in colour for the first time, as if everything I’d tasted before was black and white.  From there it became an obsession that would profoundly change my life.  In 2007 I embarked on a mission to recreate IPA’s historic voyage from Burton to India around the Cape of Good Hope for the first time since 1869.  My attempt to recreate the effects of the journey was partially successful, as was my attempt to write the most thorough, detailed history of IPA to date.  Neither of these partial successes has stopped the arguments, the mythbuilding and busting, the speculation, and that’s entirely how it should be.

The resulting book, Hops & Glory, moved me up a big notch in my career, earned me the Beer Writer of the Year gong, and to date represents the best writing I can do.  I can never look at IPA the same way again.

Tonight, my contribution to the celebrations is that I’ll be tweeting from a 6-course IPA day feast at the Dean Swift, London SE1.  It’s a lovely little pub run by passionate, knowledgable people, and they’ve pulled together what looks to be an amazing menu, which I’m not allowed to share.  If you want to know how that goes, follow @PeteBrownBeer on Twitter from 7pm UK time.

And raise a glass to the world’s most talked about beer style, and the people who have harnessed the power of social media to celebrate it in such a great way.

I promise I will go back ranting and/or trying to be funny after this post.

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Surviving the Great Baltic Adventure

Yes, I know it’s the middle of the summer – that’s why it’s daylight at 11pm.  But this is the Baltic Sea. On a good day.

Life is never boring.
Following the absolute exhaustion of the Stoke Newington Literary Festival, I’d like to say it seemed like a great idea to join the Great Baltic Adventure, sailing to St Petersburg with fourteen casks of Russian Imperial Stout.  Except it didn’t – it felt like a really stupid idea. 
And it was. 
Like my last big sea adventure, we weren’t long into it before my wife wanted to divorce me.  Not because I was away from her this time, but because she was on the ship with me.  We were ill equipped and under-prepared, yearning for sleep and running on fumes. 
Two weeks later, Liz declares it the best holiday she’s ever had (despite the entirely fictitious account on her Beer Widow blog of how it came about) and we’re both in some kind of wonderful sensory overload phase where flushing toilets and hot baths give us all-over intense pleasure, where after two weeks of listening only to waves, wind and engine noise has made music in my headphones feels more intense and beautiful than it ever has, and yet part of each of us is still on the ship, still swaying, still squinting at the horizon, still sharing inanities, UHT-milk flavoured tea and endless Custard Creams with the ragged, wasted bunch of beery eccentrics we now call close friends.
“Father” Tim O’Rourke is my new beer hero.  When I pissed off to India with Barry the Barrel, it was one man’s search for a book idea that could trump the previous one.  Tim, while inspired by Hops and Glory, has managed to achieve something much greater, something that turned into a trade mission for British beer and a quirky news story that repeatedly captured the imagination of the BBC – here and here  – and various other media outlets.
If you saw me standing in a Russian brewery wearing a tri-corner hat, looking greasy and smelly, I apologise.  If you heard Tim and me on the Today programme, I hope we sounded not too mad.
Between us, we have a great deal to say about the effects of sea-aging on beer.  I’ve got more to say about Russian Imperial Stout in general, as well as Finnish Sahti, Russian Kvass, the Baltika Brewery, Finnish microbrewers, why you should go and drink in Tallinn, or if not then at least the Red Bull in Histon, Cambridgeshire, and why there’s no people like boat people like no people I know.  
From Sting personally trying to ruin my life, to watching films about dogs turning into men while deep in conversation with Russia’s first Belgian microbrewer, to face-offs with pathetic gangsters driving ancient Ladas (or ‘cab drivers’ as the Russians call them) to the case for Disturbingly Random Theme Bars, to why it can be handy to view British ale as others see it – it’s not a book. It’s not a coherent article or single blog post.  I don’t know what it is yet.  I’ll try to make sense of it and present the best bits in the most appropriate and interesting way over the next couple of weeks.
Till then – would anyone like a Custard Cream?*
Good night.
*Sorry – on this score I think you probably had to be there.

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Confused cognitive pathways and books and beer

Synaesthesia – it’s one of my favourite words. 
According to Wikipedia, it’s “a neurologically-based condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway”.  So seeing colours might evoke sounds, you might ‘taste’ texture, and so on.
Since I learned of it, I’d tell myself I had it.  And recently, doing a bit of research, I discovered I do have a particular strain.  Since an early age, I’ve always thought that numbers have personalities – 6 is a bit hysterical, 7 cool and aloof, 5 friendly and garrulous, 2 cool and elegant, 9 a bit sly, and so on.  I also visualise dates, years, and days of the week three-dimensionally, on curved lines.  I’d always thought this was entirely normal.  Turns out it’s all a variant of synaesthesia known as ‘ordinal linguistic personification’.  So there you go.
But I think we all have a yearning for cross-neural pathways.  Information from one sense can fit – or not fit – with information from another sense to create a more or less pleasant holistic sensory experience.
Everyone who has ever put a soundtrack to a movie, chosen music for a pub, restaurant or dinner party, decided they prefer the feel of a book in their hands to the theoretical convenience of a Kindle, or played the Withnail and I drinking game has, at some level, matched different sensory stimulation to create a more pleasing experience.
So while beer and food matching is being extensively promoted by beer writers and brewers, you can also match beer with music, films, books, anything really.  I wrote a few years ago about how research at Herriott Watt discovered that different styles of music actually changed the enjoyment of wine that was drunk while it was being played.  
You can take words that apply to experiences in any sense – music, pictures, flavour, texture – and whether it’s complex, loud, light, spritzy, heavy, dark or whatever, they go well together.
But on another level, it’s just a bit of fun – a ruse to get some interesting beers in front of people who may otherwise be unaware of them or choose not to drink them. 
The success of this ruse was borne out at my first proper ‘beer and book matching’ talk, last Sunday as part of the Beer Widow’s Stoke Newington Literary Festival.  The sell-out audience (OK, it was a small venue) was one of the most mixed I’ve ever spoken to, about 50-50 men and women, mostly unfamiliar with my writing, mostly unfamiliar with the beers I’d chosen. It worked really well, taking the beer conversation into completely new territory and making porter fans out of at least two steadfast red wine drinkers. 
I didn’t have time to go out into the wider field of literature and match non-beer related novels thematically or tonally, but I hope to do some of that in future. All the following are beer or pub related and simply provide a platform to talk about some good beers, while showing in a different way how important beer and pubs are to society, and to our collective imagination.

Hops and Glory with Curious Brew IPA

Obvious starting point – the reason I came up with this idea is that I’ve been half-jokingly calling readings/tastings of my beer trilogy ‘beer and book matching’.  I used the title here, then realised people were probably expecting something more.  And H&G led in a very convoluted way to StokeyLitFest happening – it was while I was touring the book round literary festivals in 2009 with the Beer Widow at my side that she had the inspiration for the event. 
I read bits that showed what she’d had to put up with when I made the journey, and tasted a restrained but flavourful IPA from the folk who make Chapel Down Wines.

The Flying Inn by GK Chesterton with Brentwood Summer Virgin

Chesterton is one of my favourite writers, a total polymath whose ideas and language feel totally relevant today.  A century ago, he wrote “The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.”  This struck me as having some resonance with the whole CAMRA vs Blogeratti debate. 
But that wasn’t why I chose him.  The Flying Inn is the story of a slimy, devious, PR-savvy Prime Minister trying to kill pubs and usher in prohibition via the back door.  It seems to have a particular contemporary relevance.
It’s a charming read, a pastoral ramble down English country lanes, across fields and through copses.  (No one talks about copses any more.  Where have all the copses gone?)  As such, I felt it needed a golden ale, a beer that evoked summer evening and birdsong.  Brentwood, an Essex brewer, were very generous in response to a Twitter plea and supplied me with Summer Virgin, their first brew, which won the Chelmsford Summer Beer Festival in 2007 and fit the bill perfectly.

London Fields by Martin Amis with Brew Dog Avery Brown Dredge

On one level, Amis and Brew Dog feel like a perfect match: undeniable brilliance, undeniable arrogance, they piss off a lot of people, but even those people have to admit that on their day, few can match them.
I love Keith Talent, the lager-drinking, darts-obsessed protagonist of London Fields. This is easily Amis’ best work.  Even though he can’t help sneering at the stupid poor people in down-at-heel boozers, frustratingly he captures something true and timeless about those boozers.  And Keith’s defence of lager – “It’s kegged, innit?  You know what you’re getting.  Kegged,” meant I simply had to read it now.
ABD is a lager I hope Keith would have liked.  It’s still tasting bloody marvellous.  It combines the brute power of Keith ‘The Finisher’ with the elegance and mystery of his obsession, the beguiling Nicola Six.  Shit, I should probably have said that on Sunday.

‘Neath the Mask by John M East with Curious Brew Porter

Long story – this is a biography of an actor by his grandson – also an actor.  The family had a long association with the George Inn in Southwark, subject of my next book.  This biog has some great material about the George, especially its association with Charles Dickens, who was a regular porter drinker in the pub. And there’s a punchline to this particular luvvie biog that I’m going to have to keep under wraps till I’ve got it right in the book.  Another showing for Curious Brew – their beers are really rather good, if you don’t believe a beer has to tear up the rulebook to be good.

Honourable mention: Westerham Little Scotney Pale Ale

I recently featured this beer in my 50 best British beers in the Morning Advertiser.  I love it because it’s one of those beers that’s hoppy without being HOPPY, structured, refined and friendly.  Westerham’s offered to send me some beer for the tasting.  In the middle of festival chaos I was told it had arrived.  Three hours before my event I was looking for it, couldn’t find it.  The following day it turned up, unopened, behind one of the festival bars.  Guys, I promise I will make good, literary use of it.
So, I think I’ll take this format out on the road – just as soon as I’ve ironed out some of the kinks such as Chesterton’s casual racism and Amis’ tongue twisters, and perhaps broadened the repertoire. 
What do you think?

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O-Lordy – caught on the hop(s) in the Welsh Valleys

Last Thursday in Pontypridd, the early summer seemed to have revealed itself as a false start.  A chill mist hung over the peaks and dulled the valleys.  The sombre mood was enhanced when I got off the train at the wrong stop, forcing Nick Otley to come looking for me on a hillside industrial estate he’d never been to before.

When he finally found me and took me back to the other industrial estate back up near Pontypridd – the one where the Otley brewery is – my first impression was that Otley will soon need a bigger unit, if not to expand their brewing operations, then to get a bigger office for all the framed awards certificates.  If they carry on winning stuff at the rate they have since opening shop in 2005, they’ll run out of wall space this year.

I’m not the first beer writer to brew at Otley – not by any means.  I would have been higher up the list if I’d got my shit together when they first invited me to brew, but since then Melissa Cole, Adrian Tierney-Jones and Roger Protz have all been asked to come down and get their hands dirty – Glyn from the Rake, AKA @RabidBarFly, was here before any of us – his Motley Brew has become a regular addition to the range.

The trend of collaborative brewing is an exciting one, but I think, dear reader, you could be forgiven for getting more excited about, say, a collaborative brew between Thornbridge and Brooklyn, or Brew Dog and Mikkeller, than one between a thrilling new brewery and a beer writer whose only experience at brewing before has been a kit from Boots in 1981.

I’ve been asked to brew before – several times.  But on most of those occasions ‘brewing’ meant I dug out the mash tun and basically got in the way.  The notable exception would, of course, be Avery Brown Dredge – and my write up of that experience is long overdue – but Zak and Mark had much more to do with both the recipe design and the labour than I did.

Like our ABD experience, Otley ask writers to get stuck in.  Not just the symbolic digging out of the mash tun, but designing the recipe, choosing ingredients and really taking responsibility for how it’s going to turn out.  Go brew with Otley, and there’s nowhere to hide.

The pressure was on.  I’d previously talked to Nick about brewing a big old Imperial stout, because when he first asked me to come and brew – at the end of 2009 – I’d only ever brewed IPAs, and was – not bored exactly – but wanted to spread my brewing horizons.

Funnily enough, inspiration came when we were sitting in Brew Dog, about to brew our Imperious Stout, weeping with hangover.  (The Brew Dog bar in Aberdeen is great – but almost every beer is one you want to have at the end of the evening.  The End therefore goes on for hours.)  I was sitting there, feeling guilty at not having contributed more to ABD, thinking, what will I do at Otley?  And Martin Dickie, Brewing Boy Genius, handed me a nice cup of life-saving tea and popped a packet of ginger biscuits on the table. I looked at the packet of ginger biscuits.  The packet of ginger biscuits looked at me.

And I thought, Imperial stout brewed with ginger, maybe a bot of chocolate, aged in whisky or rum casks.

Otley have so far resisted the cask ageing trend.  This was to be their first attempt.  The easiest casks to get were Welsh Penderyn whisky casks – and they weren’t easy to get.  So that’s what we’re ageing the beer in.  It’ll be ready late Autumn.

A man with a camera came, which I hadn’t expected.  I didn’t have my entourage, make-up or anything.  But, I reasoned, I never have an entourage or make-up, so it makes no difference.  So I hastily improvised a quick description of what and how we were brewing.  I insist all errors in describing the brewing process are down to necessary editing, but I think Wales Online did a really nice job here.  They turned up just after we’d finished mashing in, so I’m covered in malt flour.  I’m also pitifully knackered.  But it’s come out OK.  

After we finished brewing, I had several pints of ATJ’s excellent Saison Obscura down at the Bunch of Grapes, and even though I was falling asleep from mid-afternoon onwards, the beer somehow galvanised me into giving a competent account of myself during the evening’s entertainments, when I matched various beers with each of my three books for an audience bussed into the brewery.  The smell of chocolate filled the air by the time they arrived.  I think they enjoyed the multi-sensory beer experience.

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Video Blog: The SIBA Conference

SIBA is the Society of Independent Brewers, kind of the equivalent to the Brewers’ Association in the US, and it’s doing a grand job of fuelling the growth of great quality beer from small producers in the UK.  It is a beer trade body, and as such it has its political struggles, battles with other bodies, internal strife and all the rest of the issues that plague every trade body in beer.  But SIBA events are fun.  And the people who organise and run them are decent, talented people who you enjoy having a pint with.  I wrote here about the time I had at the conference last year, so it was a pleasure to go back with the film crew this year.

So what happens in this episode? It’s twelve minutes long, so let me guide you through it.

First, Peter Amor talks to SIBA head Julian Grocock about the society, what its stands for and what it does to help promote beer.  SIBA organises a year-long brewing competition, where beers judged at regional heats go through to a national final, with the winners announced at the conference.  I then sneak into the bar while the conference is going on in the next room, and help myself to a sneak preview and tasting of all the category winners (or rather, all bar one in the final edit – not everyone likes the fact that SIBA judged a national keg beer competition this year).  This gets interspersed with interviews with some of the young, new cask ale brewers who were at the conference this year, where we seek to uncover the motivations behind a new generation entering the brewing industry.  This concludes with an interview with the brewer who created this year’s grand champion.  Which of the beers was it?  Well, if you’re eagle-eyed during the tasting segment, you’ll spot it well before I did…

These video blogs now have their own home on the web too.  Go to http://www.britishbeervideoblog.blogspot.com/ if you want to see them all together, and there’ll also be the odd extra bonus clip knocking around there too.  You can also find the embed code there now that allows you to feature them on your own site of you wish.

Finally, can I ask for some feedback?  This year of video blogs represents a significant financial investment, which aims to help spread beer appreciation beyond the usual community of beer aficionados and hopes to reach a wider audience.  If you’ve been following them for the last six months you’ll see that we’ve tried different formats and ideas, and also that we’re steadily learning our craft as presenters (the filmmakers already knew what they were doing).  We want to make them as good as we can. Any constructive comments would be very gratefully received!

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Happy Paddy’s Day!

While I was writing Three Sheets I found this great book called Planet Party.  Basically it’s an analysis of ten of the world’s greatest festivals, from Munich’s Oktoberfest to the Mexican day of the Dead.

The central thesis of the book is that civilizations need rules, conformity and order to survive.  But as we live most of our lives like this, we also need occasionally to let off steam, to throw over the rules and routine and go a bit batshit, safe in the knowledge that everyone is doing so, that this is a temporary suspension of order, permissible anarchy.  Author Iain Gately then travels the world demonstrating this principle in every continent and culture on the planet.

The only problem with the book is that for such a joyous subject, he writes it in a very dry, semi-academic fashion.  Perhaps that’s partly why it’s now out of print.  Since reading it I’ve wanted to do a similar book, going to the most extreme drinking festivals on the planet, following the same principle but getting stuck in as I do so rather than observing from outside.  The publishers won’t buy it though: it feels too much like a direct sequel to Three Sheets, and that’s the poorest selling of my three books (it sold well – just not as well as the other two) and it feels like it would serve the law of diminishing returns.

I haven’t let that stop me enjoying myself along the paths Gately has illuminated though: I go to as many of these festivals as I can.  The Jack in the Green Festival in Hastings on May Bank Holiday is a marvellous release of pagan lust and joy until about 4pm, when everyone goes back home and puts the kettle on.  And I’ll soon be writing about various Wassails I went to in January – hundreds of people standing in a muddy farmyard at night in the middle of January, worshipping trees and getting riotously pissed, smack in the middle of the grimmest time of the year – it makes me tear up just thinking about what a wonderful expression of the human spirit this is.

Which brings us to St Patrick’s Day, celebrated around the world today.

Here’s are ten things that I really, really don’t want to talk about today, because it utterly misses the point (even though I might have done in the past – today is not the day):

  • How St Patrick wasn’t really Irish
  • Why we celebrate St Patrick more than our own patron saints
  • How tedious it is that everyone seeks an Irish connection
  • How the Paddy’s Day Angry Birds update is possibly racist
Did someone say “Thieving Irish pigs”?
  • Plastic paddies and bad Irish theme pubs
  • The fact that stout (or rather, the porter that led to it) actually originates from London
  • Opinions as to whether Guinness is any good or not in a world where we now have lots of quality stouts and porters
  • Whether or not Guinness tastes better in Ireland
  • Whatever Guinness is doing marketing/PR-wise on its biggest day of the year
  • Why people who drink Guinness today don’t drink it the rest of the year
What I shall be doing instead is marvelling at the way people across our entire planet use a flimsy excuse to give themselves permission to celebrate, not celebrating anything in particular, not really, but rather adopting an oversimplified version of one of the world’s greatest drinking cultures and pretending to be part of it for one night, knowing that everyone else in pubs and bars the world over is doing the same.  And I’ll be marvelling that beer is at the heart of this, that beer’s sociability, its miraculous ability to bring joy to its groups of drinkers, is at the core of the ritual. 
What will I be drinking myself?  Well, I’ll probably go to the Auld Shillelagh on Stoke Newington Church Street and fight my way to the bar in what is normally a quiet Irish pub, and have a couple of the best pints of Guinness in North London.  I might come home early and open the bottle of Otley porter I was sent for St David’s Day, or the stunning Imperial Stout that debuted the Meantime College Beer Club, or the Quantock Brewery Stout that won bronze in SIBA’s national bottled beer competition and turned up on my doorstep yesterday.  It doesn’t matter.  I’ll be drinking dark beer because that’s what you do on St Patrick’s Day.  It’s what everyone does.

And that is, in my view, what’s really worth celebrating.

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Celebrating the Beer Hunter

This month the Brewery History Society releases a very special edition of its magazine, focused on the life and work of Michael Jackson, the Beer Hunter.

When I won UK Beer Writer of the Year in 2009, it was a particular honour because it was the first year when the award was named after Jackson.  And it was even more of an honour some months later when, as the winner of that award, I was invited to guest-edit this collection of pieces about Michael and his immense contribution to beer appreciation and beer writing.

There are more details of the result here, and you can download my introduction here.  But in a nutshell: the BHS’ Tim Holt came up with the idea, and suggested we approach various writers with topics they might want to cover.  With one exception, everyone we approached immediately came back and said yes, and delivered their pieces promptly.

I took a while to get around to reading the collection we’d assembled.  But when I finally did, I read the whole lot in just about one sitting.  When I was judging the beer writers’ awards last year, there was so much to get through we had to skim-read the entries first time around to whittle them down.  With such a big pile to get through, it was rare indeed to find a piece that you ended up reading the whole way through, and left you disappointed that you’d got to the end and there was no more.  Every time that happened, you knew you had a winner from the 400+ entries in front of you.

I’m not just being obsequious here, but that happened with each one of the pieces of writing in this collection.  What makes it even more compelling is the way it builds, so you turn to each new chapter going, ‘What, he did that as well?’  It truly is staggering to see Michael’s entire contribution to beer writing and beer appreciation, even the welfare and development of beer and brewing itself, summarised so comprehensively and so well.

We’re launching the collection at The Rake in Borough Market, SE1, on Sunday 27th March at 6pm – I only just found out that, appropriately enough, this is the anniversary of Michael’s birthday.  Tim Holt, continuing his excellent job at making this whole project happen, is trying to get as many of the writers as possible to attend. Mark Dredge and I will definitely be there.  Others would have to travel from further afield, but include Zak Avery, Roger Protz, John Keeling, Jeff Evans, Carolyn Smagalski, John Richards and Martyn Cornell.

The magazine goes out free to BHS members and costs £4.50 otherwise.  If you can’t make it on the night, I guess you can get them from the Brewery History Society website.

Hope to see you there.

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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.