Tag: Guild

| Uncategorised

Beer Awards

I hate the Beer Writer of the Year awards.

It should be a special occasion where you just socialise with all your mates in the industry.  Instead, if you’ve entered your work, you sit there with a snake writhing in your guts, desperately anxious that your work be recognised, and when somebody else wins you have to be happy for them and try to hide the self-doubt and jealousy that try to consume you.

The year I won Beer Writer of the Year for Hops & Glory was actually the worst, because I was so anxious about winning.  I felt I’d given the awards my best shot, and if I didn’t win that year I would never win. So I could hardly eat anything, and when I was announced as the winner I’d managed to get myself into such a state that my only emotional response was relief.

What an idiotic way to live.

But I don’t think I’m the only person trying to make a living from writing who is an idiot, emotionally.

Last night was this year’s Guild of Beer Writers dinner and Beer Writer of the Year awards.  And for the first time I managed to work out a more grown up approach to it.  I didn’t have a book out (Shakey’s Local would fall into next year’s awards) and I’ve only ever won a category with a book before. There was a record number of entries.  While I thought I’d written some good stuff, I was aware that there has been so much beer writing and communication this year that I was able to go to the dinner for the first time with no hopes, expectations or anxieties about winning, and just enjoy the night.

When I got runner-up in online communication for this blog, I was happy but knew that was it – the rules are you can only win one category,  and only category winners go through for the final award.

So I was happily texting my wife when my name was read out as winner of the Trade Communications category for my column in the Publican’s Morning Advertiser, and I was genuinely shocked when chairman of judges Ben McFarland started reading out one of my blog entries in the run-up to his announcement of Beer Writer of the Year 2012.

I’m very happy and proud to win this award for my journalism, because somehow it feels easier with a book – it creates a bigger splash.

And I’m gobsmacked given what else was in contention this year.

I hadn’t realised Tim Webb and Steve Beaumont’s World Atlas to Beer was being entered this time – I thought it would be next year.  When it was announced as winner of the Travel Category, I texted the wife to say it was obvious now that it would win overall.  I’ve been meaning to review it for ages.  Michael Jackson’s World Guide to Beer set the bar for beer writing.  It takes balls to try to measure up to that book.  And at the same time, anyone trying to do so needs to make a case for why they should even bother trying.  Do we really need another beer coffee table book, especially when the information at its core is precisely the kind of stuff that now fills beer blogs and websites?  This book answers the call brilliantly.  There’s easily enough knowledge and authority between the two writers to make it worthwhile.  This sings through in the text, which acknowledges the changes that have happened since Michael was writing, updating this style of book for the twenty first century and the state of craft brewing today.  It even acknowledges mainstream beer, with the brilliant term ‘convenience beers’.  And it looks great.  You should obviously have my new book on your Christmas list, but if you can stretch to two, you need this one as well.

Tim Hampson does a great deal of work behind the scenes as Chairman of the Guild of Beer Writers and rarely gets any credit publicly.  His book on beery days out was runner up to Tim and Steve, and would have stormed the category any other year.

What a year for beer books though. On top of these two there was Roger Protz’s History of Burton which scooped Gold in the award for national writing (Roger was also runner up in trade for his PMA column) and Melissa Cole’s book Let Me Tell You About Beer – a book aimed at the beery novice rather than the geek – which would also have been a worthy winner.

Dan Saladino’s Food Programme is evidence that beer is being taken seriously on a wider scale and finally making inroads into mainstream media consciousness.  And Will Hawkes’ Craft Beer London app, which deservedly beat this blog to the online/social media top prize, demonstrates the new possibilities open to beer writing.

Martyn Cornell showed he can write about matching beer with food as well as he can its history, and Alastair Gilmour, who has won the top gong about a zillion times for his regional journalism, won that award again for his own magazine about beer and pubs in the north east, which should make any other region jealous that it doesn’t have something similar.  And props to Simon Jenkins for being runner up in that category, proving his triumph a couple of years ago was no one-off.

Ben McFarland says the final choice of Beer Writer of the Year was an incredibly difficult decision.  From that line up, I’m not surprised.

So yeah, I’m well chuffed.

In explaining the decision, Ben mentioned my obituary to Dave Wickett and then, to the consternation of some in the room cos it’s weird), read out an extract from my review of the Guinness film on the excellent Roll Out the Barrel DVD.

I’m delighted that both these pieces gained recognition.  I know I can sometimes be overbearing, facetious, irritating or just plain wrong. I know not everyone likes my style or the way I approach beer. But thanks for reading my stuff.

Check out the links to the rest of the work mentioned above too.  I don’t think there’s ever been so much good stuff being written about beer by so many different people.

| Uncategorised

Not an overnight success

While I was the happiest person in the room on Thursday night, a few people will have gone home disappointed.

I know how they feel.
Three years ago I hoped I was going to be successful with Three Sheets to the Wind. I won the travel bursary and hoped I was going to win the overall thing. I didn’t.
But this proved to be the crucible from which Hops and Glory emerged, so I got there in the end. This is referenced briefly in the opening chapter to H&G. But in the first draft, there was a much longer account of the Beer Writers Awards 2006. This was one of the first things my editor cut, and he was right to do so. It was too self-indulgent and prevented us from getting to the real start of Hops and Glory as quickly as we needed to. It didn’t belong in the book, but it couldn’t go anywhere else either.
Now, I think I can offer it here as another deleted scene DVD extra. It is self-indulgent and will only really be of interest to other writers, but I hope it raises a smile and conveys that this is a game of agony as well as ecstasy:
It was the beer’s fault. It usually is. Although, when you consider that beer is the most popular drink in the world, consumed by billions on a daily basis, and not a single person among those billions has attempted to do what I was about to do in the name of beer, I have to shoulder at least some of the blame myself. I don’t mean that I got drunk and did something I regretted. I did get very drunk. And I did do something I would come to regret bitterly at several points over the following year. But one did not lead to the other: I did most of the damage while perfectly sober. What I mean is, this was one of the increasingly frequent occasions when I got carried away after spending too much time with the kind of people you meet when you let beer start to mean more to you than simply the best long drink in the world. Not for the first time, the ideas and associations that surround beer, what beer means, intoxicated me more effectively and more devastatingly than mere alcohol ever could. My voyage across the Atlantic on a century-old tall ship, and the larger quest of which it was merely part, began over dinner, ten months before I boarded Europa. Not just any old dinner though. Tonight, in the elegant surroundings of the Millennium Gloucester Hotel in London’s fashionable Kensington, just before Christmas really started to get going, several people – not all of them bearded, pot-bellied, cardigan-clad or even necessarily male – were about to receive trophies and cash for writing about beer. Every single time I mention the British Guild of Beer Writers to people who don’t work around beer, they seem to find its very existence, the mere concept it, either hilarious or completely unbelievable. A few years ago I could still sort of remember why this was. But I wasn’t laughing tonight. Tonight, for the first time since I started writing about beer, I was one of the people hoping to climb on stage and shake the hand of TV Chef and Celebrity Yorkshireman Brian Turner, and collect an envelope from him as the great and good of the British beer industry bathed me in their applause. Beer had just got serious. As formal dinners go, it was probably one of the more unusual the harried hotel staff had catered. The India Pale Ale sorbet had been a triumph. The venison matched with brown ale had split opinion, and the double chocolate stout with the chocolate pudding had been judged a bit too obvious by my table. But the contented bickering indicated that, overall, the dinner had been a success. Brewers, beer writers, beer marketers and beer PR executives pushed back their chairs, ambled past tables where they paused to shake hands with colleagues and adversaries they hadn’t seen since this time last year, and made their steady (for now) way to the bars at the side of the big, palm tree-lined conservatory to choose a digesitif from the range of forty or so beers available. The cannier among them picked up more than one bottle, knowing that in a few minutes they’d be confined to their seats to wait patiently through the business part of the evening. When it comes to the mix of emotions within the audience, all awards ceremonies are the same. Whether we’re talking about the Oscars or school sports colours awards, most attendees are willing this part to be over as quickly as possible. The few attendees who believe they’re in with a chance of winning something do their best to project an attitude of good-natured, weary boredom, while their insides churn through hope, envy, bitterness and triumph and back to the start before the shiny envelopes have even appeared. I wondered briefly which end of that scale –Academy Awards or school colours– the British Guild of Beer Writers Annual Awards Dinner was closest to. I was always rubbish at sport, and so far nobody had tried to throw my bag on the roof, beat me with a rolled up wet towel, or take the piss out of my green flash trainers in front of forty other people before whipping my arse repeatedly with them.[1] And the idea of me winning something, anything, was something you could at least entertain without having to question the fundamental laws of reality. So tonight didn’t feel like my school sports award ceremony at all. On the other hand, Brian Turner was by far the most famous person in the room. As the PA system popped into life and the big screens lit up with the logos of our brewery sponsors, I joined the stomach-churners for the first time, practising the requisite benevolent smile for when the name that is read out is not yours, the smile that you will need to keep pasted to your face as you watch someone else walk in YOUR stead up to the stage and collect YOUR award and you can only think of how long it is before you can reasonably disappear to the toilet and punch the cubicle walls and question your whole direction in life and wonder at the futility of it all and hate yourself for even thinking for a second that you were in with a chance of winning anything. You know how it is. “And the winner is… Pete Brown!” As Brian Turner became the first person in history to utter those words in that order, my initial reaction was not jubilation, but profound relief. It wasn’t the main award, of course (I would need my fake smile after all, later in the evening, for that one) but it was the one I really, really had to win. The Budweiser Budvar Travel Bursary is awarded for beer writing that has an international scope. This is a good idea in a country where many beer acolytes start with the belief that the best beer in the world is brewed within a couple of hours’ drive of their front door, and work cautiously out from there. The 2006 prize was awarded for my second book, Three Sheets to the Wind, which is still available on Amazon at a bargain price. To write it, I’d travelled forty-five thousand miles around the world, visiting nearly five hundred pubs and bars in twenty-six towns and cities in thirteen countries on four continents. It had cost me one year and thousands of pounds to plan and execute the travel, a second, much lonelier, more frugal year to write a book about my journey that was far too long and self-indulgent, and then help my editor delete about a third of it and fashion what was left into something people might conceivably pay money to read. I was the only beer writer to have attempted anything on this global scale, at least in one go. If someone else had won the beer/travel prize for, say, a fifteen hundred word article in Beers of the World magazine about a day trip to a brewery in Bamberg that makes smoked beer, interesting as that would no doubt have been, I would have had to take it as a pretty heavy hint that I wasn’t really getting this beer writing lark right. I’d even included a glowing account of my visit to the Budweiser Budvar brewery in Ceske Budejovice, southern Bohemia, and their head of Public Relations was on the judging panel. I had no idea what I was setting in motion as I stood up and walked to the podium, shook TV Brian’s hand and relieved him of a ceramic tankard with painted figures on the outside and, even more attractively, a cheque for a thousand quid on the inside, underneath the heavy pewter lid. After that, everything happened so quickly it would be months before I came to terms with it. Relief turned to glowing satisfaction as I got back to the table, moved the cheque to my jacket pocket and filled the tankard with something dark and malty from somewhere in Belgium. The Budweiser Budvar Travel Bursary 2006 was the fourth prize I had ever won in my life.[2] Two of the previous three had been writing competitions: the first was for a story inspired by a poster in the school corridor when I was ten. My gripping yarn of mutated giant hornets ridden by evil goblins thrashed the living daylights out of the runner-up, and not just because he was eight years old and the only other entrant. My last victory was the Time Out short story competition in 1994. My delight at winning my first ever computer for a story about an eclipse over London, and having it printed in a magazine people actually read, was only slightly lessened by the fact that Time Out immediately abandoned the competition in their wake of my victory, and has never done anything to encourage people to write short stories since. As I returned to my table I was optimistic: sixteen years between the first two prizes. Only twelve between the second two. My writing career was gaining momentum.[3] I should have been very happy indeed. There was no other sane reaction to the kudos of having won a prize with my first entry into the competition, not to mention paying off another thousand quid of the debt the writing had accrued. But as Brian reeled off the names of the winners of the other categories I’d entered, doubt crept back in. Finally it was time for the overall prize: Beer Writer of the Year, chosen from the winners of all the categories, built up by a glowing eulogy from Alistair Gilmour, the previous year’s winner. “This guy could have won every category he entered…” Hey, I entered several categories! And I won one! “He’s very funny….” People always say they laughed at Three Sheets. “He brings a breath of fresh air to beer writing…” Me, me, me… “And I’d just like to finish by illustrating this with a short piece…” Yes? Which piece? The bit about the Hamburglar in Spain? The bloke who ran the bar in Portland Oregon for 25 years after signing the lease for a laugh while he was drunk? The bits with Billy and Declan in Galway? Which? “…about the time he tried to convert his older brother to the delights of real ale…” Bollocks. My only brother is three years younger than me and I’ve never tried to get him to drink real ale. Ben McFarland, the hardest working man in beer writing, rose to collect his second Beer Writer of the Year award in three years. I couldn’t begrudge him it. He’s a very good writer, and if I couldn’t win, he’s the person I’d want to. In fact, every category was won by someone I not only respected as a writer, but also enjoyed sharing a beer with. It was a good night. But they were still all bastards. Doubts started to crawl all over me like little ticks; ticks that could whisper in your ear instead of giving you a rash. They’d given me my award out of sympathy. Just because of the disturbing amount of effort I’d put in. And you couldn’t ignore the very curious wording of the award. As I drained my tankard, I started to think very carefully about that, oh yes. You see, if you read it closely (OK some might say too closely), The Budvar Travel Bursary is specifically not awarded to “the year’s best piece of beer-themed travel writing (or travel-themed beer writing)” at all. It was actually awarded to “the writer who the judges feel could most benefit” from the money. Technically, it wasn’t rewarding my writing. It was saying I needed more practice. Well, that was that. Three Sheets had taken two years of my life, cost me thousands, damaged my health and upset my wife. I wanted to write more books, but there was no way I could ever do anything else on such a scale. I had been trying to work on new ideas for six months, and come up with nothing. It had been my best shot. I was having trouble communicating this to the people around my table though. They weren’t sitting with the overall winner, but they were sitting with a winner, and they were very happy for me. “Congratulations, Pete. What are you going to spend the money on?” “You’ll be off on your travels again now then, eh?” “Where are you going to go next?” “I think Liz deserves a bit of a break from the whole beer thing,” I said. “I might spend most of it on some luxury health spa retreat for us both. And then… I might write a book about… I dunno, something else.” “No, but seriously, there’s loads of countries you didn’t go to last time aren’t there?” “It’s a travel bursary. You’ve got to travel.” “You could do a pub crawl across England. The longest pub crawl.” I grinned mirthlessly. “I was going to. But a man called Ian Marchant already did. And not only did he steal my idea before I’d thought of it, he wrote a better book about it than I would have done. It is in fact called The Longest Crawl. Funny eh? It came out a month after Three Sheets. I can recommend it.” “So where are you going to go then? What about going to the States again?” “I need to refill my rather splendid tankard, I’m afraid.” I was being churlish. Every person on my table was a beer-world mate, someone I was very happy to be dining with. And I’d won something. So later, after refilling my tankard too many times, disgracing myself, losing my cheque and phoning Budvar the next day to ask them to stop it and issue me with a new one, I thought about how I might satisfy the moral obligation to spend at least some of my prize money on a beery trip somewhere. I might return to Germany and visit some of the famous brewing towns I was forced to skip on my Three Sheets trip due to the Death Star-sized hangover and possible scurvy inflicted on me by Oktoberfest. Maybe write that article about the day trip to Bamberg and the smoked beers myself. Or perhaps I’d go to Finland and drink the very strong beer they still make there by fermenting wort with bread yeast inside a hollowed out spruce log before filtering it through pine needles. Either of these trips would make a nice article for one of the specialist beer magazines. I would enjoy the trip, learn something new, and the obligation would be fulfilled. These plans made me happy for about two weeks, before flying scared out of the window of a central London pub, chased away by the dangerous and stupid idea that was about to change my life.

[1] The games teachers at our school knew they had an important stereotype to conform to.
[2] Nobody ever actually said, “And the winner is… Pete Brown!” for the first three, unfortunately.
[3] The other prize I won was for painting some Citadel Miniatures TM Warhammer TM Chaos Warriors TM at a model making competition in Rotherham when I was thirteen. But that’s another story – one I have no intention of writing.

| Uncategorised

How to sell barley wine

If you’re interested, here’s the text of my speech from the Guild of Beer Writers seminar last Monday – it seemed to go down pretty well.

The best book on marketing I ever read was called Positioning: the battle for your mind. It was the best book because it contained one simple idea. It repeated this idea over and over again, with countless examples, until you got it. And it’s an idea that can help you sell anything worth selling. Basically, the idea is this: the way the human brain works, when we are introduced to a new thing or idea, we automatically try to make sense of it by filing it in our brains next to things we already know. We understand it by relating it to things we’re deeply familiar with. The first cars were known as horseless carriages. Television was like radio, but with pictures. And Seven-Up launched in the United States as ‘the uncola’. In each case, the product is defined – positioned – against a product that’s already familiar. Think about when we write tasting notes for beers – the best way to describe an American IPA to a wine lover is to compare it to a Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc. Imperial porters are “vinous”. And who can say they don’t regularly describe the combination of hops, barley, yeast and water as chocolatey, fruity or biscuity? The term ‘barley wine’ is a classic piece of positioning thinking – we know what wine is. It’s made of grapes. This is wine that’s made from barley. Of course, technically its beer, not wine, but if a potential drinker, never having heard of it before, hears this phrase, they can decode a lot of product information from it. It’s going to be strong in alcohol and in flavour. It should be sipped and savoured from a small glass, not drunk in pints. It’s going to come in a 750ml bottle, designed for sharing, that’s going to look great and cost a lot of money and be suitable on a dinner table and… oh hang on. It’s quite interesting to see where the analogy breaks down, isn’t it? The very name, barley wine, sets accurate expectations about what the product will deliver. But not about what to expect from how it will be packaged and sold. And there’s another problem: if you say ‘barley wine’ to older drinkers, they have another concept in their heads which means they don’t actually get to wrestle with the metaphor of the name to unlock those rich associations. To them, barley wine is rocket fuel, cheap and nasty, something that was around in the seventies. To win them over, you need to do something that breaks the association between the term and the drink they used to know. The solution to both is simple enough: a different approach to presentation and packaging. If you package a very strong beer in the same type of bottles in which you package ordinary beer, give it a similar name and labelling, and sell it at a not too dissimilar price point, people are going to think that it’s like other beer – carrying the same associations, to be drunk in the same fashion. This is why people think of an 8% beer as insanely strong when they’re perfectly happy to drink 12% wine in similar quantities. Present it in a different way, a more premium way, and people will think of it differently. Drinkers have two sets of associations in their heads: beer, and wine. Barley wine can and should play with both. A clichéd advertising proposition for barley wine would be “the beer that thinks it’s a wine”. You can immediately see the associations that conjures up. But you have to do it justice. Think about quality. Presentation. Ritual. When you get a bottle of barley wine that looks like it’s worth paying seven quid for before you’ve even picked it up, you’ve probably got it nearly right. You might not like the fact that we’re using wine as a benchmark of quality. But you have to work with what’s already in people’s heads. And it is called barley wine.