Tag: Pubs

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Golden Pints 2013

I don’t normally join in this annual beer bloggers’ exercise in navel gazing because I’m too busy and I think I can do something similar but better and used to do my own round-up before they came in. But this year I’m not too busy and, more importantly, I can’t think of anything better, and Zak Avery just did a really wonderful post that has urged me to try my own hand, so let’s see how we get on.

Two things happened for me in 2013: one, I turned 45, moving into the 45-54 demographic. I’m middle bloody aged and that came about far too quickly. Second, I celebrated Man Walks into a Pub, my first book, being in print continuously for ten years. In 2003 I was a fresh young voice in beer writing, younger than pretty much every other writer I met. Now I’m an establishment old fart. That’s how quickly it happens and it’s just not fair.

In keeping with this development, I’m becoming curmudgeonly and going retro. This year the headlong rush of craft beer in London started to get a little wearing.

“HEY LOOK AT ME, I’VE MADE YET ANOTHER SINGLE HOP CITRA PALE ALE USING TWICE AS MANY HOPS AS I SHOULD HAVE. I’M A CRAFT BREWER AND I’M AWESOME.”
No you’re not, you’re a hipster chancer who needs to learn how to brew a balanced beer. Remember how Picasso had to learn how to paint properly before he could do all those seemingly random paint splashes and make them work? You need to know how to brew boring brown ale well before you’re qualified to mess around with more diverse stuff. And cloudy, yeasty, alcoholic grapefruit juice became the new boring blond beer in 2013.

“YES BUT I’VE STARTED MAKING AWESOME SAISONS NOW INSTEAD.”
No. You really haven’t. Go away, drink a Saison Dupont and think about what you just said.

“OK BUT BEFORE I GO WOULD YOU LIKE TO BUY A BOTTLE OF MY AWESOME NEW EXPERIMENTAL BEER? IT’S STILL A WORK IN PROGRESS, IT’S NOT QUITE RIGHT YET…”
Well what the fuck do you think you’re doing charging people four or five quid for it?

There were brilliant new craft beers this year of course. But for me 2013 was the year I remembered about Belgian Trappist ales, perfectly balanced, crystal clear best bitters, the original American IPAs, and stopped worrying about whether or not I was keeping up to speed with the latest new opening.

Best UK Cask Beer
How should I know? If I drank all 4000 of them I’d be dead. Because of what I said above, the beer that had the biggest impact on me was Truman’s Runner. It took me back to simpler times when I first got into beer, and anyone who dismisses this style as ‘boring brown beer’ needs to figure out whether they actually understand flavour.

Best UK Keg Beer
Camden Hells. The best lager in the world. I was there when it was judged to be so and rarely have I seen an international group of brewers unite around something so completely.

Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer
Thornbridge Chiron. The once unimpeachable Jaipur has become a little patchy of late. Chiron simply rules – a slam dunk that pulls me up short whenever I’ve tasted it.

Best Overseas Draught Beer
A popular choice in the GPs, Lagunitas IPA. I was delighted to see it appear in craft beer pubs this year. One of the first US IPAs I ever tasted back in ’04, despite the marketing moving on and becoming bolder and more diverse around it, it still kicks ass.

Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer
Rochefort 10. Always.

Best Beer For quiet contemplation
Worthington White Shield still nails it for sitting there and being mindful, always revealing more, always developing.

Best Beer for gabbling with mates and seizing the day
The beer that has evaporated from the glass, pint after pint, while we make plans and put the world to rights, is probably Howling Hops Pale Ale number 2.

Beer I haven’t drunk enough of in 2013
Magic Rock.

Welcome surprise beer style that crept up on us and is likely to be huge next year 
Rye/RyePA/Red ales

Best beer for crying into
The new Fuller’s Imperial Stout. A case of this arrived at my door about ten minutes before the vet who came to put Captain the Celebrity Beer Dog to sleep after ten brilliant years with us. Two bottles of this 10.7% ABV magnificent bruiser gave him his wake.

Best Branding, pump clip or Label
Box Steam’s Brewery’s lovely Evening Star is the only beer I’ve impulsively tweeted a picture of like a giddy fanboy.

Best UK Brewery
Sharps. No really. I’ll never knowingly drink another pint of Doom Bar, but the Connoisseur’s Choice range has been consistently excellent and thought-provoking without being weird for the sake of it. Although I still haven’t yet tried the beer brewed with woodlice. Not weird for the the sake of it at all. 

Adnams were a very close second, making any debates about a supposed distinction between craft brewers and real ale brewers irrelevant.

Best Overseas Brewery
I haven’t visited any overseas breweries this year so on the basis that nothing has come across my radar to change the view I’ve held for years, it’s Brooklyn Brewery.

Best New Brewery Opening 2013
I dunno. I’m going with Wild Beer Co. Yes I know they opened in 2012, but I didn’t do the Golden Pints last year so I can include them this year if I want to.

Pub/Bar of the Year
One’s local is a strange thing. There are lots of pubs we go into regularly, but few to which we give that special distinction. It’s a relationship we change less frequently than marriages or bank accounts, but I changed mine this year. My new local, 25 minutes walk from my house, is the Cock Tavern in Hackney.

Best New Pub/Bar Opening 2013
Like what I said about Wild Beer Co, the Hops and Glory opened in late 2012, but still feels new and exciting to me. 

Beer Festival of the Year
The only one of the new wave of craft beer festivals I managed to get to this year was IndyManBeerCon. I’m glad I made it – craft beer growing up, showing its longevity as well as its imagination and creativity.

Supermarket of the Year
M&S

Independent Retailer of the Year
Geerts Drankenhandel in Oostakker on the outskirts of Ghent is the best beer retailer I’ve ever visited. €1 for Saison Dupont? €10 for Deus 750ml? €1.25 for Rochefort 10? I should coco. €318 euros later the car boot was so full the axle was groaning.

Online Retailer of the Year
Haven’t really used any but there are some interesting new ones coming up – Eebria is very new but looks like it could become really interesting – love their approach.

Best Beer Book or Magazine
Pocket Beer Book by Stephen Beaumont and Tim Webb. Because together they’re two of only maybe four or five writers on the planet who could honourably take up the reins that Michael Jackson left. And because it’s the book that told me about Geerts Drankenhandel.

Best Beer Blog or Website
Zak Avery chose Adrian Tierney Jones’ blog for its “non-linear relationship with narrative.” I’ll echo that, with Zak as runner-up for that observation alone.

Best Beer App
Craft Beer London is the only one that seems worth using at the moment.

Simon Johnson Award for Best Beer Twitterer
Simon Bloody Johnson of course! He’d already done enough before his cruelly premature passing in May to walk this one.

Best Brewery Website/Social media
I wish I could say Let There Be Beer, but the execution got off to the worst start imaginable. The intent is sincere, but the execution was botched. They are trying to remedy this now and not giving up, and I’ve been chipping in a bit of advice. Hopefully there’ll be a turnaround next year. But given how rubbish it was in 2013, I think the winner this year goes instead to Brew Dog. I don’t always agree with the beers they brew or the things they say, and inevitably they’re not as fresh as they were with so many people inspired by them now setting up in competition, but James Watt and Co still know how to use social media better than anyone. 

Music and Beer Pairing of the Year
Jimi Hendrix’s take on All Along the Watchtower paired with Chimay Blue. 

Food and Beer Pairing of the Year
Dinner cooked by Tim Anderson at Dukes Brew & Que back in May. Not all of it successful but all of it audacious and interesting. Gave me the most epic food hangover I’ve had this year, and my best celeb namedrop story ever.

Now – time to try that woodlouse beer…

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My new website: www.petebrown.net

After months of talking about it, I’ve finally had my blog revamped as more of a full website with more permanent content.

I’ve always struggled with trying to put stuff on here and not being able to, and setting it up like this means I can take self-promotion stuff out of the main blog feed and put it somewhere else, and make it easier for people to find what they’re looking for.

I’ve also registered the domain petebrown.net, which is easier to remember and redirects to this site.

So there are some new tabs along the top – here’s a brief guide to what’s behind them.

  • What’s new? Keep an eye on the black newsstrip feed, where I’ll talk about new blog posts, events, newly posted articles elsewhere etc.
  • Home – the main blog page. Hello.
  • About Pete – a brief bio, longer description and hi-res press shot – I get asked for these a lot! Now they’re here.
  • Events – I do loads of readings and corporate events. I’m going to keep an ongoing list of events I’ve been booked for, complete with details of tickets etc. There is also some information here about the variety of events I do, from straightforward book readings to experimental beer and music evenings to full dinners, and how to book me for an event.
  • Books – a summary page for all the books I’ve written, in order of publication. Click on each title and you’ll go to a page on that specific book, with more blurb and a bit of background, and some reviews with links to any I’ve managed to find in full online. In time, most of these pages will also have a photo gallery relating to the book.
  • Other writing – the main reason I don’t blog as often as I used to is that I have two or three press deadlines a week. I thought it might be nice to collect links to these so that if I haven’t posted for a while and you are for some reason desperate to see what I’ve been thinking about, you can read more of my stuff here. I’ve only put a fraction of it on here so far but will eventually build it to be comprehensive.
  • Consultancy – very few people can make a living just from writing these days. I do consultancy for drinks manufacturers and their agencies (which I keep entirely separate from my writing) and here’s a bit of a sell page on what you can hire me for
  • Links – I’ve gone for a cleaner design overall. Soon I’ll put a blog roll back up here as well as links to other useful resources.
  • Contact – there’s a form here that sends messages to my personal email.
Sorry to blog about my own blog, but this helps me get my career on a more professional footing, and hopefully helps you find what you want.
The next step of course, now I’m not working on a book for the first time in three years, is to start posting some more interesting content on the blog itself, now I don’t have to clutter it up with posts about events etc. I’ve got so much to write about – some stories going back over a year – so will try to post more often from now on.

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The Cask Report shows how cask ale helps keep good pubs open

Today sees the launch of the Cask Report, the annual state of the beery nation I write on behalf of a loose consortium of brewers and beer industry bodies.
Every year I think ‘how can we do another one without just getting repetitious?’ and every year we somehow get enough insight and data to give us more understanding of why cask ale is increasing in popularity and why this is good news for publicans (the main target audience for the report). Everything can be downloaded from the Cask Report website, if not now then by the end of the day, but here are the main summary highlights…  

Cask ale is outperforming  the total beer market by 6.8%

Cask declined marginally by 1.1% in 2012, versus a total beer market decline of 7.9%, and the long-term trend remains one of steady improvement. Cask grew in value by 3% (thanks to increasing prices). Cask’s ale’s share of total draught ale has increased to 55%. Cask continues to grow its share of all beer with a 16% share of all on-trade beer. Although cask ale’s performance is flat, that’s much better than the general decline in beer.

Cask ale continues to grow in awareness and interest 

More pubs are stocking more cask ales on the bar. 57% of pubs now stock cask – up from 53% in 2009 – stocking an average 3.8 different brands. 

The growth in range is helped by the 184 new breweries that have opened in the last year

That’s three new breweries a week. We now have 1147 breweries in the UK, the vast majority of which brew cask ale.

Cask ale plays a major part in keeping pubs open 

Cask ale pubs see better results across the whole beer range, and cask drinkers are far more likely to visit the pub, far less likely to say they are doing so less often. Many people say they are going to the
pub less often than they used to, and 47% of the population say they are drinking less alcohol than they did a year ago. (So where are all the binge drink scare stories coming from?) The reasons they give are obvious, but interesting nevertheless. Only a tiny minority cite issues like the smoking ban as the reason for not going to pubs as often. 73% of drinkers say they are drinking more at home because it is cheaper. And the main reasons people are drinking less is that they want to get healthier. This is really important for pubs: if they want to stem the decline, it suggests we need some value alternatives, lower ABV drinks, better (and better value) soft drinks, and healthier food options on menus. Only 20% of cask drinkers (as opposed to 47% of all adults) say they are drinking less, and 25% say they are drinking more. Those who are drinking more are doing so because they perceive improvements in the quality, range and availability of cask. So cask drinkers are bucking the trend of declining pub-goers.

Cask ale has outgrown its traditional base 

It’s now a drink for men and women of all ages. Our research among drinkers shows a big take-up among a wider audience, and most cask ale publicans believe cask is bringing more women and younger drinkers into their pubs. One in five cask ale drinkers tried it for the first time in the last four years – proving cask is attracting new drinkers. 

A major appeal of cask to both drinkers and publicans is its variety

Both publicans and drinkers talk about the huge array of styles and flavours. The optimal cask range is a mix of style, colour, ABV, familiarity and provenance, and should be rotated on an on-going basis. But consumers want guest ales to stay on the bar for longer than licensees currently keep them, and want a core of familiar brands as well as new and different beers. Big and small both have a role to play.

Recent interest in ‘craft beer’ is driving awareness and appreciation of cask

Despite people on both sides of the ‘craft’ debate stirring up conflict on blogs, at events and in the trade press, creating the impression that new-style craft beer and traditional cask ale are threats to each other, most people – at least most who are aware of craft beer – think the two styles go hand-in-hand and have a large overlap. Awareness of ‘craft’ is not as widespread among consumers as it is in the industry. 77% of licensees are aware of craft beer, but only 37% of drinkers (this rises to 47% among cask ale drinkers). Those who are aware of it believe it denotes quality and is worth paying more for, and consider most cask ale to be ‘craft’. It’s a good thing. And it’s a real boost – not a threat – to cask ale.

Pub beer festivals are increasingly popular

33% of cask ale pubs – around 10,000 pubs in total – have run a beer festival in the last
year. This is a major source of trial for new drinkers. 39% of women who drink cask beer, for example, do so at festivals.

Cask ale publicans cannot imagine a future for pubs without cask. 

We carried out some original, independent research among licensees who stock cask. It was brilliant to hear from them about how at the novice end of the spectrum, people who start to learn about cask never having drunk it before quickly develop a genuine personal interest in it and start drinking it themselves. They go on to become passionate advocates for it. Most see it as an essential part of any quality pub’s product mix.

The launch of the report is timed to coincide with and kick off Cask Ale Week, which seems to be getting bigger every year. Go out and drink some cask ale. It’s a good thing.

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Reasons pubs are closing #453

Last week I was invited to the All Party Parliamentary Beer Group annual dinner.

It was a great event, with some wonderful beer and food matches and a bunch of awards handed out. Fergus Fitzgerald from Adnams was named Brewer of the Year – a richly deserved accolade for someone who is running a great range of traditional ales and an exciting programme of craft beer innovation side by side.

George Osborne was recognised and awarded for dropping the Beer Duty Escalator and for the first cut in beer duty since 1959. I loathe this man more than almost anyone alive, and being in the same room as him made my skin crawl. But it is right that he was applauded – he did something the industry had been asking for for years, something that benefits every pub in the country, and it’s right and proper we say thank you for that before getting back to hating him for his open warfare on the poor and disadvantaged, his arrogant shattering of the social contract that exists between a government and its people.

Also honoured was Andrew Griffiths, the MP for Burton-on-Trent. His was an easier gong to cheer. He’s a Conservative MP, a tireless campaigner for and genuine lover of beer, a great constituency MP, and a thoroughly decent bloke. He’s the proof that you don’t have to be arrogant, venal and cruel to be a Tory MP, even if many of them are. He made a long speech about the campaign against the duty escalator. He could have scored some easy party political points by pointing out it was introduced by a Labour government, but he didn’t. He could have scored more points by pointing out it was a Tory government that scrapped the escalator – instead, the first thing he said was that the campaign had been a cross-party effort. A thoroughly decent man who you’d happily buy a pint for – but that would involve getting to the bar before him…

After the dinner was over, a few of us – Griffiths included – wanted to go on for another drink somewhere else. It was late, and we were in Westminster, where licensing laws are overseen by a council that hates the very existence of pubs and refuses pretty much any requests for late licenses, so it was the kind of evening where you have to make compromises. Griffiths suggested the Players Bar, a late night place in Villiers Street in Charing Cross, apparently popular with MPs and their staff.

As you’d expect, the beer selection wasn’t great: A-B Inbev had inflicted their range on the bar, and draught beers consisted of Stella, Bud, Becks Vier and the loathsome Stella Artois Black. But alongside the Becks and Bud bottles in the fridge there was also Staropramen – not an immediate choice of mine, but I can drink it without complaint.

Or at least, I can when it’s served in a drinkable state.

When we were served our second round, I took a sip from my beer and discovered it was warm – room temperature in a hot room.

“Excuse me, this beer is warm,” I said to the barman.

“So?” He replied.

“Well, it’s undrinkable.”

“But you’ve had some out of it.”

“Yes, that’s how I know it’s warm. I can’t drink any more of it. Can I have another one?”

“I could give you a glass with some ice in it.”

“No, I don’t really like ice in my beer, thanks. Could you just replace it?”

He took the beer away and handed me a fresh, cold one.

“That’ll be £5.”

“What? You’re charging me to replace a beer that wasn’t fit to drink?”

“You’d drunk out of it.”

At this point Andrew Griffiths, ever the gentleman, stepped in and paid for the beer.

Conflict was averted. It would have been rude to have pressed the point when Griffiths – our host – had acted so decisively to head off the argument. But it spoiled my evening. We often make the comparison between pubs and coffee shops. It’s highly unlikely you’d ever be handed a stone cold cup of coffee. But if you were, it would be replaced with a hot one without question. Pubs like this – mercifully rare – seem incompetent and unfriendly by comparison. If this is where MPs come to drink, and this is the kind of service they get, no wonder so many of those who weren’t at the dinner tonight don’t seem that bothered about pubs disappearing.

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The Pub Trade in 2013

Just before Christmas I was asked by leading pub trade mag The Publican’s Morning Advertiser to give some predictions for what will happen in the UK pub trade in 2013.  They had to edit for space, and killed one or two jokes in the process, so here is the full thing.
Apologies if it’s a bit cliquey for those not working in the UK pub trade – I didn’t have time to do proper predictions here.  Normal blogging will resume just as soon as I’ve finished writing my next book, World’s Best Cider, in about a month’s time.
January 
A beer blogger from Wrexham works out a definition of ‘craft beer’ that nobody has a problem with. She is subsequently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
February 
The rate of pub closures rises.  Everyone in the industry panics.
March 
A saboteur switches George Osborne’s weak Ovaltine for Timothy Taylor Landlord, and the chancellor unexpectedly tastes beer for the very first time.  He uses his budget statement to issue a heartfelt apology to the nation’s brewers and immediately freezes beer duty.
April 
The negativity on the Publican’s Morning Advertiser’s online forums reaches such an intensity that it creates a black hole just outside Crawley.  Professor Brian Cox is called.
May 
Brew Dog releases a 4.1% ABV premium bitter brewed with moderate amounts of Fuggles and Goldings hops. Beer bloggers declare this to be a stroke of subversive genius. The Portman Group slams it as stupid and irresponsible.
June
The royal baby is born.  Various brewers create commemorative ales. The Daily Mail accuses brewing industry of trying to give booze to babies.
July 
The Crawley Black Hole disappears. The nation celebrates. Brian Cox reveals he did it by showing cute pictures of puppies to PMA forum contributors until they cheered up a bit. And points out that this took THREE. FUCKING. MONTHS.
August
Brew Dog’s 4.1% bitter wins Champion Beer of Britain.  Beer bloggers declare this to be a stroke of subversive genius. The Portman Group slams it as stupid and irresponsible.
September
The rate of pub closures falls.  No one says anything about it.
October 
The editor of Observer Food Monthly commissions the first article about beer in the magazine’s thirteen-year history.

Just kidding.

November 
Shortly after releasing his blockbusting autobiography in time for the Christmas rush, Greg Mulholland MP flies to the jungle to appear on I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here.  And obviously wins it.  Because he’s AMAZING.
December
Wells & Young’s revives Young’s Christmas Pudding Ale (come on, guys, take a hint).
See you soon.

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The pub that’s about to become a Wetherspoon’s

“Oh.  Did you know that pub’s about to become a Wetherspoons?”

We’re in town on the cider trail.  The microbrewery tap we’re drinking in doesn’t have rooms, but another pub just round the corner does B&B for thirty quid a night.  We’ve just told the regulars in the microbrewery tap that we’re staying there.  It’s impossible to tell whether they think it’s a good thing or a bad thing that the pub we’re staying in is about to become a Wetherspoon’s.  Either way, they’re very keen to tell us.

“There’s a notice in the window,” they say, nodding, and indeed there is – a Notice of Application for a New Premises Licence, on behalf of J D Wetherspoon plc.

The pub that’s about to become a Wetherspoon’s is bigger than it looks.  There’s only one bar open and the rest is in darkness, but it you were to explore you’d find another bar on the other side, that’s set up to cater for diners who never come.  And then, through a glass door at the back, there’s another room as big as these two bars put together, where there is (or was) a carvery at weekends.  The pub that’s about to become a Wetherspoon’s will make a perfectly good Wetherspoon’s.

The pub that’s about to become a Wetherspoon’s is festooned with small plastic flags – Union Jacks and Welsh dragons hang from every beam.  “They’re left over from the festival,” says one of the regulars at the bar.  On every flat surface, and glued to every wall, there are posters offering you a free pair of sunglasses if you drink a certain quantity of Strongbow.

The barmaid in the pub that’s going to become a Wetherspoon’s is the reason people come here.  Still very attractive, she was obviously stunning ten years ago.  She’s sexy enough to draw men in, and approachable enough to make them think that maybe – just maybe – they might have a chance with her. There’s a story doing the rounds that one of the regulars once took her home with him to meet his wife. Someone pointed out to him that this may have gone down better if it had been the other way round.  But the pub that’s about to become a Wetherspoon’s doesn’t feel like the kind of pub you take the wife to.  It’s not that it’s unwelcoming to women – it’s as welcoming to them as it is to anyone – it’s just that it’s obviously a place men come to get away from their wives.

The pub that’s about to become a Wetherspoon’s is close to the place where a five year old girl just went missing.  Posters are everywhere – the ones you’ve seen on the news, and others featuring different photos of the little girl.  It’s on people’s minds.  Maybe it’s one reason the town we’re in feels like a ghost town.  No one feels like going out.  There’s a depressed tension in the air.

“I’m going to go up there tomorrow to see if I can be of any help,” says the attractive barmaid.

“What can you do?” asks one of the regulars.

“I don’t know, but you’ve got to show willing, haven’t you?” says the barmaid.

The 63 year-old retired property developer is one of the regulars who thinks he stands a chance with the attractive barmaid.  He offers to accompany her to the cellar to change a barrel.  He makes it sound sinister rather than flirtatious, but he doesn’t mean to.

He tells us about the house clearance he just did where the tenant had been a chronic hoarder.  He kept his own bodily fluids in bottles.  Even kept his own shit.  “We haven’t found his nail clippings yet, but they must be there somewhere,” he says.

The attractive barmaid rolls her eyes.  “He tells that story to everyone who comes in,” she says.  “We had a nice couple in the other night who’d just had their dinner, and they turned round and walked out again.”

The 63 year-old retired property developer doesn’t realise that one reason he will never stand a chance with the barmaid is that he keeps telling his house clearance stories.

The pub that’s about to become a Wetherspoon’s has a font on the bar with taps for draught wine.  There are also branded taps for Strongbow, Blackthorn, Cobra, Carlsberg, Tetley’s Cask, Worthington Creamflow, Tetley’s Smooth, Pepsi, and a naked handpump with ‘Bank’s Sunbeam’ written in biro on a fluorescent yellow starburst sellotaped to it.

The Carlsberg is undrinkable, but the attractive barmaid happily swaps it for a Cobra.

“My nose got split last Friday,” says the attractive barmaid.  “I’ve had my lip split before.  They don’t realise when they do it that they’ve just earned a criminal record and lost their jobs.”

The 63 year-old retired property developer says he can’t go home because his wife has guests round, and she doesn’t want him embarrassing her because he’s drunk.  So he stays here, talking politics.  The elderly man who goes to the microbrewery tap first and then comes here and sits alone, smart in his suit and tie, every night at the same time in the same seat, disagrees scornfully with everything the drunk property developer says, like a call and response catechism.

“These two do that every night,” says the barmaid.

There’s still a jukebox in the pub  that’s about to become a Wetherspoon’s.  Not enough pubs have jukeboxes these days.  But tonight the jukebox is switched off, because the TV in the corner is on.  It’s switched to BBC4, which is showing a programme about the life and work of Norman Wisdom.  Clips of him pratfalling, clips of him meeting the Queen, interspersed with ageing comedians and TV executives talking about what a gifted comic he was.

“Whass’on the tellee?” asks one of the regulars.

“Norman Wisdom,” replies the attractive barmaid.  She stares at the screen for a while, then asks, “What was he, a philosopher?”

“No, he was a comedian,” replies the regular.

“Well ‘e can’t have been that funny, I’ve never heard of him,” says the attractive barmaid.

The pub that’s about to become a Wetherspoons stays open late.  When the property developer and the smartly dressed elderly man leave, we’re the only customers in the bar.  The attractive barmaid takes a seat and chats to us, and then three young guys come in for last orders, ans she tells them how long they have to drink up.

It’s late, and I call it a night.  And as I go upstairs to my room, I wonder if – when Wetherspoon’s finally do take over this pub, and they change some things and leave other things the same – I wonder if they’ll rename it the ‘Moon Under Water’?

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Telling Stories and Drinking Beer

It’s less than six weeks now until the launch of my new book, Shakespeare’s Local.

I had some very exciting news about the book yesterday, which I can’t reveal until contracts have been signed in a few days’ time.  It’s also been confirmed that the book will have a US edition some time next year.

But books don’t sell themselves these days, so I’m gearing up for various events up and down the country where I’ll be reading, talking about the book, and doing beer tastings.

Here’s the schedule so far:

Saturday 29th/Sunday 30th September – Taste Cumbria, Cockermouth
At 3pm this afternoon I’ll be tasting a world of Cumbrian beers as part of this excellent food and drink festival, and maybe doing the odd reading.  I’ll be repeating the tasting again at 1pm tomorrow.

Monday 1st October – Beer tasting mash up at the Manchester Food and Drink Festival
They asked me to do an event.  I said yeah, I could do a tasting of local beers, or beers that match with my books, or a beer and cheese pairing maybe?  Or what about beer and music matching?  It’s the right city for it.  And they said, they all sound great – can you do the whole lot?  So I’ll be attempting to weave together four completely different events at 7pm on Monday in the festival hub.

Tuesday 9th October – Ilkley Literary Festival
I had a blast here with Hops & Glory a few years ago.  Can’t wait to go back and unveil the new show I’ve put together around Shakespeare’s Local – it’ll be a multimedia extravaganza I tell you!  And it’s already sold out! No pressure then…

Thursday 8th November – Official Book Launch!
Finally hits the shops. I may have a celebratory beer at the George.

Monday 12th November – Corbridge
Details to follow

Tuesday 13th November – Urmston
Details to follow

Wednesday 14th November – Caught by the River at Rough Trade East
I love Caught by the River.  I love Rough Trade East.  Thrilled to be doing an event with them.

Wednesday 21st November – Richmond Literary Festival
An event in a beer shop.  And not just any beer shop – realeale.com’s HQ is beer paradise.

There will be many more events to follow, including a few at the George itself in the run-up to Christmas.

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Guinness for You – A Warning From History

We’re in a hip East End Record Shop – a fitting venue for the headfuck that is about to follow.

It’s the launch of this excellent Double DVD from the BFI:

This is a collection old promotional films for pubs made between the 1940s and 1980s, and I’ll be writing more about the amazing collection of moving, educational and sometimes hilariously bad films in the Publican’s Morning Advertiser soon.  (There was a good if over-pessimistic review in the Guardian this week.)

On launch night, Robin Turner, author of this excellent book and the DVD sleeve notes, tells us we’re about to get ‘a ghostly view of what pubs used to be like’, does a reading, and then shows us a heartwarming film of pub life in 1945 that was made for troops fighting abroad, to show them what they were fighting for.  It brings a tear to the eye.  Luckily the lights are down.

After a short break for another beer (Sambrooks is sponsoring the event) one of the chaps from the Pub History Society introduces the next film.  It’s a short, experimental piece made in the early seventies for Guinness, basically looking at the production process, the care and attention that goes into a glass of Guinness, and was designed to be shown in cinemas.  Guinness has an unrivalled pedigree of TV advertising over the decades, but this is another story – the film is fifteen minutes long.  I’m suddenly very interested, never having come across it on any historical showreels in my time in advertising.  The Pub History Man keeps repeating the word ‘experimental’.  

“If any of you have tabs of acid, now is the time to take them,” he suggests.

There’s no need.

The next fifteen minutes shows what happens if you take the typical ‘making of beer’ film that every brewery has as part of its brewery tour, and you process it through a 1960s lysergic filter then broadcast it on Mars.  It’s a film about how a beer is made, but it’s more interested in colour, shape and texture than narrative. Guinness has never made – and never will make – anything as bold, daring, experimental and pure batshit crazy as this short film ever again.  And on balance, we should be thankful for that.

Bottles resemble aliens, the production line a spaceship.  The popping of a cork is like watching Martians fucking.  The printing of labels resembles insects eating.  The manufacture of bottle tops a plague of crickets having an orgy.  

Shit, we haven’t even got to the beer itself yet.

The bottling line is an Orwellian stew of rutting dead objects, filing to their doom as Arthur Guinness gazes on.

And then we’re onto barley growing, and it’s growing in a scary way, nature transmuted into a sinister force.  Your instincts tell you that you must never go near that awful field.  A combine harvester appears and turns the field into a concentration camp, a charnel house, the grassy final solution.  

There’s brief respite when we get to the hop farms, where the jagged electronic soundtrack is replaced by a wonderful, soaring cor anglais over peaceful images of hop bines and oast houses.  But hang on, what’s happening?  Now the hop bines are dancing like tripping triffids, and the cor anglais mutates into squawking, mewling modern jazz.

Water is something creepy and dangerous. Barley malt is a plague of locusts, the malting process the work of these countless billions of insects.  

Sparging offers us another brief interlude of beautiful visual poetry, but the results of the mash are landscapes devastated by nuclear war. As we prepare for the addition of the hops the music creates rising tension and fear, and then the boil is accompanied by a noise so terrifying this DVD should not have a PG certificate.

I can’t even bear to describe the timelapse imagery of yeast fermenting inside padlocked storage vats.  Let’s just say I won’t be able to sleep for about a week.

These scenes are intercut with a glass of Guinness being poured, the familiar anticipation as the drink makes its way to you.  Each time we cut to the glass we get monks chanting like they do on the Omen films just before someone gets cut in half or skewered by a spike.  By the time you see a human hand raising the glass, you want to cry “Nooooooooo! Don’t drink that, it’ll turn you into Swamp Thing!”

We never see the drinker.  But the film ends with multiple sighs of enjoyment that are cut artificially short – proof that this has actually happened.

Shaken, I turn to the sleeve notes.  The film was written and directed by Eric Marquis and the music was by ‘experimental British composer’ Tristram Cary, who also did music for Dr Who and for Hammer Horror films.  This makes a lot of sense.

Cary is no longer with us, but Marquis is, and fair play to the BFI, they not only track him down but publish the full details of their exchange with him.  He begins by saying he has ‘little memory of it’, and describes it as ‘twenty minutes or so of clever-dicky images’.

The BFI then sends Marquis a copy of the film to refresh his memory, and he replies, “My first reaction has been reinforced (and multiplied). If you do not wish this disc returned I will cheerfully burn it and wish that all other copies extant could also be destroyed!  I can only say that I am deeply ashamed of having had anything to do with the making of it.  And you can quote me if you like.”

What better endorsement could there be?

Hats off to the BFI for pulling this collection together. Buy it now. Just make sure there’s no one of a nervous disposition in the room when this particular film comes on.

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Dave Wickett, Beer Legend, RIP

Dave Wickett died. Bastard cancer.

This award-winning, iconic Sheffield pub would not have existed without Wickett

Wickett gave cancer more than it bargained for.  When cancer said, “You’ve got six months,” Wickett replied, “Fuck you,” and went off and planned and opened a new brewery, and carried on living life to the full for another two years.

Dave Wickett died, aged 64, on 16th May 2012.

He’d been diagnosed with terminal cancer in January 2010.

How’s that for six months?

The much-loved 2004 Champion Beer of Britain would not have existed without Wickett

Beer is a tight-knit community.  If you’re reading this blog, you may well have met Dave Wickett.  If you didn’t, you probably know someone who did. And if you don’t think you did, I promise you you’re more closely connected then you might think. You’re probably no more than two – at a maximum, three – degrees of separation away from one of beer’s singular heroes.

I knew Wickett (everyone just called him Wickett) pretty well.  Not as well as his close friends and colleagues, but pretty well, because I was supposed to be ghosting his autobiography.  To my shame I didn’t get as far with that as I wanted to before he died – not by a long way.  I hope it will eventually reach fruition, but that discussion is for some time later.

Wickett grew up on the outskirts of London in the swinging sixties. He saw England win the World Cup at Wembley in 1966 (football was his great passion before beer ever was), and off the back of that, in a somewhat unlikely fashion (the story of his life) ended up in Sheffield – a city he much preferred to the UK’s capital. That, in itself, is a big clue – here was a man who saw things differently.

You’re probably familiar with the story of how CAMRA came to the rescue of British cask ale in the 1970s.  You may be less familiar with what Wickett did.  He never threw himself into committees and mock funerals for closing breweries.  He had little interest in the politics of the organisation.  But he read and absorbed, and used the fledgling Good Beer Guide like a bible. But as a Polytechnic Economics lecturer, he also balanced passion for real ale with objective business nous – which brought him to the same place as his passion.  So he bought a run-down freehouse pub in a derelict area of Sheffield, named it the Fat Cat, and set out a stall consisting of a decent real ale selection and a food menu that always had a veggie option, winning heaps of awards over the next 30 years.

This brewery would probably never have happened without Wickett

In order to make the pub work as he wanted it to, Wickett challenged the declining 1970s real ale brewers to change the way they did business. They had to, if they wanted to supply him – and this new business arrangement would change the fortunes of countless other pubs.

In his lectures, he used real ale as a case study to prove how big business was distorting the ‘principles’ of the free market by using anti-competitive measures to deny choice to the consumer – something even Margaret Thatcher would have objected to – and when the Tories did object, and created a guest beer rule that freed pubs from a 100% brewery tie, Wickett opened his own brewery, Kelham Island in Sheffield. Kelham Island Pale Rider was Champion Beer of Britain in 2004, an early example of the golden ale that has now come to dominate Britain’s cask ale revival.

He’d been busy in the day job too, and had taken on responsibility for an innovative student exchange/placement programme that saw some of his Sheffield business students going to Rochester, New York, to run the first proper English pub in the US – the Old Toad, which helped pioneer cask ale in America.

The brewer on the left was hired for his first job in brewing by Dave Wickett

Wickett was never in it to make a high pile of cash.  He wanted to live a comfortable life doing what he loved.  He often compared himself to J D Wetherspoons’ Tim Martin, who opened his first pub in the same year Wickett did.  Wickett sometimes pondered if he should have gone down a more aggressive, chain-building route, and was often asked why he didn’t do that.  But he was always happy with his choices – he preferred running what he had, and taking on new challenges as and when they interested him.

So while Wetherspoons expanded with a fixed format across hundreds of branches, Wickett decided to open Champs, a sports bar in Sheffield.  Then he decided to invest in and guide the development of a tiny new brewery called Thornbridge.  He hired the two young brewers – one of them being Martin Dickie, who would later go on to co-found Brew Dog. But when Thornbridge wanted to grow at a greater rate, Wickett pulled out amicably, wished them well, and looked for new projects.

Sheffield is the real ale capital of the world thanks to Dave Wickett

After he was diagnosed with cancer, he opened another new brewery, Welbeck Abbey, as part of the School of Artisan Food.  It’s still in its infancy, but as part of a brilliant set-up that teaches people about great food and drink across the board, offering lessons in disciplines such as baking and butchery, with the makers of Stichelton cheese also included as part of the set-up, it’s another innovative operation that will help take serious beer appreciation onto a broader foodie stage.

Meanwhile, back in Sheffield, the ripples of Wickett’s actions were extraordinary.  Wickett wasn’t always an easy taskmaster, and over the years various brewers fell out with him, felt frustrated with his direction, or weren’t good enough to keep their jobs.  The extraordinary thing is that just about everyone who quit or was fired from Kelham Island went on to start a brewery of their own, often less than a couple of miles away.  Kelham is now at the centre of a dense cloud of microbreweries, and Sheffield has more cask ales on tap at any one time than any other city in the world.

Dave Wickett leaves an extraordinary legacy to the beer world.  Not just from his own actions, but from the people he inspired and who have imitated him.  The ripples of his brilliant life and career will continue to influence the beer world for years to come.