Tag: Review

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2009: What the blazes was all THAT about? (Part Two)

OK, after getting most of the political and industry stuff out of the way yesterday, let’s get on with celebrating the best of beer and pubs. Remember, this is totally subjective and based on my experiences, and isn’t trying to be any kind of definitive guide.(Note: because this is a review of the whole of 2009, Let’s Be Nice on Pete Brown’s Beer Blog Month is suspended for this post.)
BREWER OF THE YEAR Winner: John Keeling at Fuller’s Because in an industry that’s riven with divisions, he sets an example that every brewer, large or small, should aspire to. To large breweries, he shows that being part of a PLC whose fortunes rely on TV-advertised brands doesn’t have to stifle experimentation and innovation. He’s leading the way with learning about how ageing affects beer. He refuses to call this innovation – he prefers ‘rediscovery’. Also, he’s the model head brewer as brand ambassador, touring the country with informative and entertaining tastings and jokes so old they were first told over a pint of Egyptian bouza. And to micro/craft brewers, he’s an example of professionalism and rigour, who wholeheartedly supports a micro scene that keeps him on his toes. Fuller’s has a perfect core range of beers – a malty premium ale in Pride, an often-overlooked hoppier session ale in Chiswick, a glorious finisher in ESB, a summer ale, and a stable of seasonals, plus the legendary vintage ale, and much more. All this, and he’s a Fall fan. (We’ll let him off being a Man United supporter.) If your name is Stuart Ross, please look away now…
BREWER OF THE YEAR Runner-up: Stuart Ross, Crown Brewery, Sheffield Stuart works alone with a three-barrel plant in a cellar beneath a pub. He does everything single-handed, from cask washing, to bottling, to designing labels and pump clips. And the beers he turns out in his understated fashion are too good to be overlooked any longer. He saw a load of chillies being sold off cheap in Morrisons so he bought them on impulse and created Ring of Fire, a 10% chilli beer that has a subtle taste of chilli pepper before the heat gradually builds. He does a nice range of session beers, and a variety of fully-hopped IPAs. His Smoked Oktoberfest is the best beer I’ve ever tasted with Indian food. And the Damson Porter he created with Zak Avery is divine. I could go on. Stuart just brews what he feels like brewing, constantly experimenting. I don’t think he knows how good a brewer he is. I’m scared how big his head will grow when he does realise, so I just hope I don’t help create a monster by giving him the recognition he deserves. So no one tell him what I just said. OK Stuart, you can come back now.
BEER OF THE YEAR Winner: Wye Valley HPA (Hereford Pale Ale)

Because a recent post by ImpyMalting made me realise that, along with many beer bloggers, when it comes to beer appreciation I’m getting seduced down a cul-de-sac of the extreme, eclectic and experimental, whereas in reality most of my drinking consists of session pints. Because HPA is a very good session pint, quenching and citrusy and refreshing and satisfying. Because it’s very smartly branded and presented and makes ale look cool. Because when my father-in-law was dying in February, Liz and I shuttled between the hospital and the Angel Hotel in Abergavenny and the perfectly served HPA kept us going, a quiet moment of relaxation and contemplation in the middle of the stress and grief, an escape, a tonic. Because after the funeral, we and our friends held a wake for Eddie in the Angel, and we drank HPA until we could drink no more. Because when you ask someone what was the best beer they ever had, they tell you all about the context of it, not the flavour or the ingredients, and this beer reminded me of that in 2009. Great beer isn’t about what’s in the glass; it’s about so much more.
BEER OF THE YEARRunner-up: Crown Brewery HPA (Hillsborough Pale Ale) special 13% version You couldn’t get two more different beers, and the fact they’re both called HPA is a rather weird coincidence. Hillsborough Pale Ale is a 3.8% session beer. One day, CrownBrewerStu decided to see what would happen if he brewed a 13% version of it, which he did in a home brew bucket. When I first tasted it, my jaw hit the floor. This is a stunning barley wine, rich in caramel sweetness, rounded and not too harsh, a hint of sherry. I’ve no idea how he got the balance and depth and smoothness of it at this strength. If Brew Dog released this beer it would – rightly – be celebrated around the world. I made Stu give me the last of it for our Christmas party last week. Hopefully this post will force him to make some more and sell it at a premium price in 750ml cork and wire finished bottles. And hopefully he’ll get someone in to do a really gorgeous label.
PUB OF THE YEAR Winner: The Sheffield Tap, Sheffield Train Station I’ve only been once. It’s only been open a couple of weeks. But it’s not very often a pub takes your breath away. If only more big pub operators had Thornbridge’s vision, thoughtfulness and bravery. If only more small operators had their scope and access to investment capital.

The Sheffield tap: before…

… and after. (“Barnsley Skins” graffiti not pictured)
PUB OF THE YEAR Runner-up: The White Hart, London N16 It’s my local, and this is my review so I’m allowed to choose whomever I like. But this perfect boozer in Stoke Newington is a microcosm of what’s happening in beer. It’s always had great atmosphere, decent, reasonably priced food (though being the chef there seems to be like being the drummer in Spinal Tap), a fantastic beer garden, and is easily the best pub I know to watch a match on the big screen. You can tell it’s a great place to work because many bar staff have been there for years. But until recently there was one lonely Spitfire handpump in the corner that almost seemed to have cobwebs on it. Andy thought cask ale was only drunk by old men, and was of no interest to his hip, young clientele. Now, he has an slowly rotating range of three cask ales, sells bucketloads of them to N16’s hipsters, and is a born-again drinker of St Austell Trubute. He told me last night he’s applied for Cask Marque accreditation. And he’s planning on replacing Stella with Peroni. Kind of sums up the best of 2009!
PUB OF THE YEAR Honourable Mention: The Hillsborough Hotel, Sheffield For the beers, for the welcome, for the bacon sandwiches, for the quiz, for Pie Night, and for offering the best value accommodation in Sheffield. Eventually, I’ll get used to the trams and won’t be woken up by them before dawn.
BEER BLOGGER OF THE YEAR Winner: By a country mile – and he’s really going to hate this – Cooking Lager! No one knows who he is. Someone thought he might be me, which I was flattered by. But is he a beer geek playing a role, venting frustration? Or could he be for real? Every now and again he slips up and reveals that he knows more about beer than he lets on, but mostly, he ruthlessly skewers the pretentions of beer geeks and reminds us that, at the end of the day, it’s just beer. I depend on his tirades against pongy ales, odes to Lout and tales of his eternal struggle to stay on the right side of the Ladysqueeze to keep me grounded. And his review of my books, where he compared the relative merits of Man Walks into a Pub and Three Sheets to the Wind not on the merits of language, or insight, or research, but on their ability to prop up his wobbly sofa, is something I’ll always treasure. If it’s an invention, it’s a genius one. If he’s for real… I don’t know whether to admire him or fear him.
BEER BLOGGER OF THE YEAR Runner-up: Boak and Bailey I picked this not on who is the most prolific, or who uses the medium of blogging to its best advantage (that would be Young Dredge). As this is subjective, I’ve chosen it purely on what blogs I find myself clicking on most often from my blog roll, who I enjoy reading most. Boak and Bailey clearly know their stuff but write with a beautiful simplicity and understatedness, and a constant sense of exploration and discovery, across a refreshingly broad range of beers and topics. If you haven’t read them before, start with this brilliant discussion on pubs and class.
BEER BLOGGER OF THE YEAR Honourable mentions: Runner-up spot was a tough call: the other blogs I habitually click through to whenever I see there’s a new post include Pencil & Spoon of course, Woolpack Dave, Tandleman, and the thoughtful, beautifully written, lyrical ImpyMalting. Pump Clip Parade for a laugh, and ATJ is doing some lovely stuff too. We’ve got such diversity and richness now! Oh yes – and the Beer Widow of course. God help me if I don’t give ‘er indoors a richly deserved mention for sticking a long-suffering toe into the blogging waters.
SLOPBUCKET OF THE YEAR Winner: Easy – the Daily Mail. Look, why don’t you just fuck off?
SLOPBUCKET OF THE YEAR Runner-up: The BBC We expect it of the Mail. They’re the pantomime villain in the war against neo-Prohibitionism. But the Beeb website is just as guilty of demonizing alcohol, and beer in particular, as anyone else. This post from yesterday is typical – if you read to the end, expert testimony from Ian Gilmore – hardly a friend to the alcohol industry – explicitly contradicts the assertion in the headline. But as Jay Brooks points out, most people only read the headline and first para, meaning the truth gets buried. Mostly I’m with Stephen Fry – I love the BBC. It’s one of the reasons I love Britain, one of the best things about our culture. But we expect and deserve much, much better than this continued, willful distortion of the truth about our national drink from an organisation that’s largely trusted for its balance and impartiality. Shame on you.
SLOPBUCKET OF THE YEAR Honourable mentions The rest of the British news media. As I said in a recent Publican piece, when you’ve got everyone from the Mail to the Guardian saying the same thing about you, you know you’ve replaced tobacco, hoodies, staffordshire bull terriers and Swine Flu as the moral panic of the day.

So that’s my take on the year. I’d love to hear yours. Thank you for reading me in 2009. Thank you for your kind comments when I get it right, and thank you also for picking me up when I get something wrong. 2010 is going to be a great year for beer. I’m going to make an effort to remember why I started writing about it in the first place. I’m going to continue to learn more about beer, from brewers and drinkers and other writers. I’m going to do everything I can to evangelise beer outside our cloistered, beer geeky world, to carry on the war against media shite and neo-prohibitionism, to call out foolish behaviour in the industry and to celebrate beer as it continues to emerge and prosper as the most exciting drink around. Merry Christmas!

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2009: What the blazes was all THAT about? (Part One)

Yes, it’s that time of year again – my personal round-up of the last twelve months. And it is personal – utterly subjective, just a bit of fun. My highs and lows will not be the same as yours, nor would I expect them to be. Part two comes tomorrow.
It’s been an incredible year for me personally, and a fascinating year for beer and pubs. There’s obviously been a lot to worry and moan about – pub closures, industry in-fighting, media shite etc – but looking back over the year I feel way more optimistic than I did twelve months ago.
Britain’s craft beer revolution really did happen this year. Brew Dog dominated the headlines, and however much you agree or disagree with them, they’re the only craft brewery my 63 year-old Mum can name (apart for Thornbridge, which she’s been to, and Acorn, which is just down the road).
We also got the first Brew Dog backlash, with even some of their fiercest advocates turning against them. I think we’ll see an older, wiser Brew Dog in 2010. They won’t stop making waves though, and I don’t think they should.
Brew Dog’s achievements have perhaps overshadowed a growth in craft brewing elsewhere. Thornbridge opened a new brewery that is breathtakingly ambitious. Dark Star and Otley, both brewers of outstanding, US-influenced craft beers, are expanding, and many other brewers are too.

Brooklyn Brewery’s Garret Oliver opens Thornbridge’s new brewery in August.

There’s more to say – but let’s say it in my utterly arbitrary and totally totalitarian category awards.

(Note: As this is a review of the whole of 2009, the rules of Let’s Be Nice on Pete Brown’s Beer Blog Month are suspended for this post.)


Winner: Cask ale’s return to volume growth.Writing The Cask Report, we never could have hoped that this difficult year would be the one where cask ale returned to growth – but ahead of expectations, it did. I’m predicting – once SIBA brewers’ volume has been factored back into BBPA figures – that cask will show 2-3% volume growth to the end of 2009. This remarkable in the current climate, a total turnaround in a mere three or four years. And if you’re not a big cask fan, take heart – it’s irrefutable evidence of the wider growth of interest in flavourful beers, and this can only improve as we come out of recession.
BEST THING THAT HAPPENED IN BEER THIS YEARRunner-up: The online beer community comes of age.I don’t want this to sound self-serving and insular, so apologies, but this will prove very beneficial for beer in the long run. Blogging has become a true medium in its own right, and with the addition of Twitter, online and social media have created a spontaneous beery community that swaps ideas, views – even physical beers. I know some people have been blogging about beer for years, but this is the first time I started to perceive a real community with legs in the outside world. There was a palpable sense of excitement at the Great British Beer Festival this year when many online friends met up – or twet up? – for the first time. The industry is now looking online for its ideas – and when brewers and other organisations ask my advice, I tell them that’s the best thing they can do. Brew Dog had already built their brand through this medium before most of us old timers had really woken up to what was going on. They’re going to have some stiff competition in this regard next year. (Come back tomorrow for my blogger of the year).
BEST THING THAT HAPPENED IN BEER THIS YEARHonourable mentions:I’d hoped to include cask ale week here – I can’t, because it wasn’t quite good enough. But it was the first one and it will be happening again, and will hopefully get even better – from what I’ve seen so far it definitely will.The Great British Beer Festival was the best I’ve been to, but the usual wranglings around cask ale festivals and lager, filtered and pasteurised craft beers etc show the need for a different kind of beer festival to run alongside CAMRA-organised events. Beer Exposed promised to be that in 2008, but the organizers decided not to do a second year. That’s a crying shame.
WORST THING THAT HAPPENED IN BEER THIS YEARWinner: The beer and pub industry’s increasingly childish infighting

The British beer and pub industry, 2009 – aka the People’s Popular Front of Judea Suicide Squad.It almost made me want to give all this up. Yes, everyone has different agendas, yes sometimes the aims of different groups conflict. But the broader issues facing the industry will cause for more damage to beer and pubs if we don’t put less significant quarrels to one side and take them on.Just a couple of weeks ago, CAMRA declined to support the BBPA’s manifesto for the survival of the pub, promising to bring out their own instead. AAAARGGHHH!!!!!!! What is the POINT of that? Why duplicate valuable time and resources? Why DELIBERATELY create the impression of a fragmented, bickering industry among the people you’re trying to win over to your point of view? I’m not singling CAMRA out – they’re merely the latest in a long line of breweries and industry bodies indulging in cretinous behaviour that does a disservice to their members.I get so passionate about this issue because history tells us this is what screws people over: whether it’s the American drinks industry in the run-up to Prohibition, communists and anarchists in the face of fascism in the Spanish Civil War, or left wing parties generally and the Life of Brian sketch that satirized them, precedent proves that when you can win a struggle, internal bickering snatches defeat from the jaws of victory.The childish behaviour has to stop.
The Axe The Beer Tax campaign just might have worked.
It was a useful illustration of what can happen when the industry stops fighting and works together. It led to one of the most widely supported Early Day Motions in Parliamentary history, saw the brewing industry attempt to use social media for the first time, and helped highlight the issue of pub closures to a general public that may support the media’s anti-binge drink line, but soon becomes sympathetic when they realise they might lose their beloved local.
But the campaign did not receive widespread support among the industry it sought to save. That, and the fact that Alastair Darling is a complete fucking wanker, a Thunderbird puppet lookalike and I’m not just talking about the stupid fucking eyebrows but also the fact that he walks like he’s on fucking strings and talks like someone fucked and bombed on Quaaludes, the fact that he’s so fucking shit at his job he’s actually manage to reduce the government’s revenue from beer by putting up tax, when his only stated aim was to increase revenue, and yet he still thinks putting tax up yet more will somehow have the desired effect – I mean, this man is educationally subnormal – all this meant that tax on beer went up again in the budget.It’ll go up again when VAT goes back up in January and he leaves in place 2008’s nasty, pernicious additional tax rise which was purely to ensure that beer and pubs were the only sectors of the economy not to benefit from a VAT reduction. This clueless gimp is going to throw more people out of work, decrease government beer tax revenue still further, and close even more pubs when he puts up beer tax above inflation yet again in the 2010 budget.
MY PERSONAL BEERY HIGHLIGHT OF THE YEARWinner: Well, it’s got to be winning Beer Writer of the Year.No need to go on about it much more than I already have. To many, beer writing is a hobby – which is not meant as disrespect or trivialization. But to me it is now how I pay my bills, having all but given up my former day job as a freelance ad man in 2009. If I’m going to make a living from it, this is going to help no end.

MY PERSONAL BEERY HIGHLIGHT OF THE YEARRunner-up: The launch of Hops & Glory…and particularly the ensuing tour.

A bookshop in Steyning, Sussex. They knew I was coming.
Rather than being another exercise in self-congratulation it turned into a rather wonderful summer of going to places I’ve never been before and meeting new people. While pushing my book about India, I fell in love with Britain all over again. And yes, there were lots of new beers to try.
MY PERSONAL BEERY LOW POINT OF THE YEAR Winner: My ever-increasing beer belly. Yeah, I know beer isn’t fattening. But anything with calories is fattening when you consume enough of it, and I’ve put on another stone this year. The one and only downside of my increasing profile is that I get a lot more beer given to me, and a lot more invites to events, tastings, judging sessions etc. Each and every one of these is wonderful in its own right, but the sheer volume of them means it’s now a simple choice between my health and accepting every kind invite when it comes. It’s a high quality problem I guess! But seriously. I need to fit back into my clothes and give my liver a rest.
MY PERSONAL BEERY LOW POINT OF THE YEARRunner-up: The Andre Simon Food and Drink Book Awards This is going to sound like sour grapes and there’s no way around that, but it’s a reminder that despite beer’s increasing profile and the vibrancy of the blogging world, there’s still a lot of work to do. The prestigious Andre Simon awards give out an annual gong for best drinks book. With its strong sales, good critical reaction and success at the Beer Writers Guild Awards, I thought Hops and Glory stood a good chance. Then, I saw the criteria the judges were specifically looking for this year: new primary research, educational value, writing that was engaging and interesting, and a book that looked great, and I thought they’d basically described Hops and Glory. I submitted it. It didn’t even make the shortlist. Every single book on the shortlist is a book about wine. In 31 years a wine book has won this award 24 times. A beer book has won once. I didn’t expect to win, but I did hope to make the shortlist. It’s the swings and roundabouts of awards I guess, but when the awards website uses the words ‘drinks books’ and ‘wine books’ interchangeably, I can’t help thinking that the broader perception of beer’s inferiority to wine might still have something to do with it.
Don’t miss Part Two tomorrow – with my nods for Brewer of the Year, Beer of the Year, Beer Blogger of the Year, and the dreaded (but quite predictable) Slop Bucket of the Year! And if I have time, some predictions for 2010.

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2008: what the blazes was all THAT about?

Having blogged fairly regularly for the first time throughout the past year, I have an urge to do a sort of round-up thing. It’s purely subjective, skewed and very possibly inaccurate, but I’d welcome any comments, additions or disagreements.

It’s been a great and terrible year for beer. The beer market is in freefall in volume terms, attacked on every side. It’s not made any better when people who regard themselves as guardians and spokespeople for the industry are the loudest voices shouting about about ‘the death of the pub’ as if it’s a reality – you’re just helping to make it so, guys.  Also, we’ve been talking for years about a renaissance in the appreciation of our national drink, and while there always seems to be progress, the idea of widespread love of interesting beer, even to the same degree it currently happens in the US, still seems a long way off.

But on the other hand, I think we’ll look back on 2008 as the year British brewing began to rest one eye on the future instead of being perpetually preoccupied with the past. Four years ago, when I was in America researching Three Sheets, I tasted Cascade hops for the first time and bemoaned a lack of such flavour in Britain. We used to ask why British brewers insisted on brewing a portfolio of beers that were all 4.5% mid-brown session bitters. That criticism now seems out of place. Obviously Brew Dog get the headlines for their daring and authority-baiting brews, but use of North American hops is now commonplace in the UK. Wood ageing of beers is widespread, and many brewers now seem unafraid to incorporate Belgian influences or just bloody well experiment a bit. This is not a discussion about the politics of beer – if you like drinking the stuff, it’s just fantastic to have more variety and flavour more easily accessible.

For me personally, I feel like I spent more time in 1823 than 2008. After getting back from my IPA-to-India trip a year ago, I was planning on finishing the book by the end of January. Then I got lost in history, wrote a book that was nearly twice as long as planned, and didn’t hand it in till October. Next year sees a painful edit and a rush to get the book out in June. It’s the best thing I’ve ever written. It’s not as good as it could be, but books never are. I can’t wait to share it with you.

So here, in no particular order, are a few highs and lows:

Winner: Beer Exposed in September – it wasn’t perfect, but it reinvented what beer festivals can be like. If they learn the lessons from this year, and if more brewers, having seen it work, join in, the 2009 event will be phenomenal.

Runner-up: The widespread new experimentalism of British brewers.

Winner: tax, tax ,tax.

Runner-up: obvious to anyone who has endured reading me over the last few months – the slow death of Stella Artois, once my favourite brand, now presided over by people who see beer as just another grocery brand, no different from cat food or laundry detergent.

Winner: learning how to brew – or starting to. A day brewing Jaipur at Thornbridge in the summer saw my first (and hopefully last) stint cleaning out a copper from the inside. Then I was lucky enough to be invited on Everard’s gold brewing course, where we recreated an authentic nineteenth century IPA. I’m still trying to flog stories on these – if I fail, I will write them up on here in the New Year – when I also hope to be doing lots more brewing.

Runner-up: a Goose Island beer and food matching dinner at the White Horse in Parson’s Green, with the head brewer introducing each of the beers. Mere sensual bliss…

Winner: Having a very exciting meeting with a development producer from ITV where we agreed in principle to develop an idea for a series that would see me going around Britain investigating different regional beer styles and stories. Then reading THE NEXT DAY the announcement that Oz Clarke and James May were filming the same idea.

Runner-up: Having a very promising meeting with a development producer from an independent production company, who eventually turned down the idea of serialising Man Walks into a Pub but said they would love to film me doing a beery journey, something ambitious, that I was doing anyway, that had historic roots but contemporary relevance… and me saying, “WHERE WERE YOU A YEAR AGO WHEN I WAS TRYING TO GET PEOPLE INTERESTED IN FILMING MY JOURNEY TO INDIA?” and them saying, “Yes, we’d definitely have been interested in that”.

Winner: Stefano Cossi at Thornbridge. Possible bias here because I saw him at work close up, but I’m blown away by his combination of experimentation and obsessive rigour and quality control. His beers have consistently wowed. With a new, bigger brewhouse almost complete, 2009 could be Thornbridge’s year.

Runner-up: Alastair Hook at Meantime. Awarded Brewer of the Year by the British Guild of Beer Writers, he consistently and tirelessly pushes quality and flavour ever closer to the mainstream drinker.

Winner: Orkney’s Dark Island Reserve. Matured in malt casks for three months, 10% ABV, full of fruit, spice, wood and malt. It’s not the most challenging or extreme of the new wood aged beers but it’s perfectly balanced and, importantly, perfectly packaged. It looks great, and these days that’s just as important as the product delivery if you want to change perceptions of what beer can be.

Runner-up: Brooklyner-Schneider Hopfen-Weisse – a collaboration between Garrett Oliver and the ancient German Schneider brewery. It tastes like what it is: a hybrid of North American hoppy craft brew and spicy, banana-scented German wheat beer. It’s fragrant, it’s fruity, it’s fabulous.

Honourable mention: Brew Dog’s 13% IPA that’s been matured in a whisky cask for 18 months with a load of strawberries. The result is more like a Sauternes than a beer. Amazing.

Winner: Alastair Darling for his one-man mission to kill off the pub industry.

Runner up: the renowned home brewer who keeps collaring me at industry events to tell me my IPA journey was a) full of errors and b) pointless. Get a life.

Blogging is not always a comfortable pursuit.  There’s a tension between the democracy of blogging for all and the unapologetic use of blogs by writers such as myself for personal promotion.  It’s often hard to know where to draw the line between the professional and the personal.  Any writer writes because they have a need to be listened to, and whatever that says about our psyches and frail egos, I’m gratified that people read this blog and link to it and recommend it. I apologise to anyone I’ve offended on here – I try not to.  I hope you’ve enjoyed reading most of what I’ve written, and wish you a happy and prosperous 2009.