Tag: solipsism

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2010: What the blazes was all THAT about? (Part three)

A day late thanks to laptop crashes. Here are my final reflections…

Source of cautious optimism of the year: The rebirth of the (good) pub

Is the worst over?  The number of pubs per week that are closing their doors for good fell from 49 in mid-2009 to 29 in 2010.  That’s still too many – but it’s an improvement.
That’s actually a net figure – more pubs are closing than that, but some of them reopen as pubs.  In fact Christie & Co, a big pub estate agent, claim 60% of the closed pubs that pass through their books reopen as pubs.
And everywhere I’ve gone in 2010, I’ve seen great new pubs opening, and flourishing.  In every one, the story is the same: here was a pub that, before the end, had chased the lowest common denominator in search of shoring up its income, with brighter lights, louder TV screens and music, karaoke and promotions on lurid drinks.  In every one, the new landlord said to me something along the lines of “Before this placed closed, there was more money changing hands in the toilet cubicles than was being passed over the bar.”  Pubs signal the kind of place they are as soon as you walk in, and attract custom – or not – accordingly.
And whether we’re talking craft beer pubs like the Jolly Butcher’s on my doorstep, the Cask and Kitchen in Pimlico or the newly opened Thornbridge pub the Greystones in Sheffield, or revived community pubs like the Chesterfield Arms in Chesterfield or the Morgan in Malvern, these boarded up shells have been taken over by people who get that a good pub should be about good beer and good conversation.  They’re reclaiming their roles as community hubs.  People who haven’t sat together and spoken for years come together once more. 
It’s not foolproof, but decent beer pubs offering good beer in the right location are thriving.

Buried hatchet of the year: The Great British Beer Festival

Regular readers may have noticed that I slag off CAMRA with some regularity.  I don’t enjoy it, but it has to be done. 
The first slagging I gave our consumer campaigning body was in my first book, Man Walks into a Pub, and the main focus of my ire was the Great British Beer Festival.  I used to be drawn to it every year, and I used to hate it every year.  I hated its unfriendly staff, its singular lack of atmosphere, and the fact that every single aspect of it seemed to actively alienate anyone who was not already a fully paid-up CAMRA member.
In 2009, I grudgingly admitted that much had changed, and despite reservations, it was getting pretty good.  In 2010, I enjoyed it unreservedly. 
We could still point to the appalling acoustics, the ludicrous situation whereby Meantime, a brewer of incredibly authentic traditional London beer styles, is not allowed to exhibit those beers in a London beer festival thanks to an irrelevant technicality, or the apparently growing hostility to the large regional brewers who kept real ale alive until the micro boom came along.  It’ll never be perfect. 
But there’s been a lot of thought given to layout and navigation, the foreign beers now get the space and respect they deserve, and the staff of volunteers have undergone a massive charm offensive, and are, on balance, as unfailingly polite and helpful as they were rude and hostile a few years ago.  More than that, festivals are made by the people who attend them.  The craft beer revolution and CAMRA’s more open body language have attracted a much broader spectrum of people, and GBBF now actually feels like a festival.  It feels like a celebration of great beer on a grand scale – which is what it ought to be.
Congratulations, CAMRA.

Big night out of the year: Kelly Ryan’s Euston Tap Farewell

Most sadly missed, Britain’s loss is New Zealand’s gain etc. 
At the end of the year Kelly Ryan, Thornbridge brewer, brilliant public face for the brewery and perfect foil for the gifted but shy genius that is head brewer Stefano Cossi, decided to return home down under. He announced that he’d be having a few drinks in the newly opened Euston Tap on 1st December, if anyone wanted to come along and say goodbye.
Earlier that evening I’d already been to a Beer Genie Christmas beer tasting with my oldest friend, Chris.  This was also a leaving drink of sorts, with Chris leaving London after 16 years to return oop north.  Kelly’s party was in full swing when we arrived, with many familiar faces.  Thornbridge Alliance, one of only two casks in existence of a beer brewed three years ago in collaboration with Garret Oliver, was on the bar, alongside several other Thornbridge solo and collaborative brews.  I was asked for my autograph when I walked in, which was weird – I’ve signed lots of books and stuff, but never actually been asked for my autograph before, and certainly not on the basis of my appearances on a long-lost food TV programme four years ago.  
There was already a certain giddiness in the air.  With heady beers of 10% or 11% on the cards, I planned my night’s drinking carefully – three or four different halves, building in flavour and intensity, until finishing on the Alliance at about 10pm then heading home. 
This would have worked if I was buying my own drinks, but on nights like this in the Tap that’s not always easy.  Various indeterminate pints and halves began appearing in front of us.  And then in burst Jamie, proprietor of both Sheffield and Euston Taps, bearing a heavy plaque that had been awarded him by a bunch of railway enthusiasts for the restoration of the Sheffield Tap, presented by none other than celebrity trainspotter Pete Waterman.  More drinks all round.
And then it started snowing, heavily, and then pizzas arrived, and then it was snowing inside, because a bunch of polystyrene appeared from somewhere and Chris was tearing it into smaller pieces and throwing it in the air.  Jamie was challenging people to arm wrestling contests at the bar, goading them with slaps around the face if they proved hesitant.  I don’t think the stoic bar manager, Yan, ever actually called time or declared a lock-in.  It just reached a point deep in the night where anyone who came to the door took one look inside and hurried away again.  Kelly and his girlfriend Kat looked delighted, accepting endless drinks and occasionally even trying to buy one.   The snow continued to fall and barley wine followed Imperial Stout followed Double IPA, and we stayed there, drinking irresponsibly, until about 2am.
One of those nights you’ll remember for years to come – the sheer joy of drinking great beer with great people.  In the snow.

Local triumph of the year: London finally catches up with Microbrew revolution

In 2006, Ben McFarland and I spent a day touring Boulder, Colorado, while visiting the Great American beer festival.  At that time Boulder (population, 85,000) had 15 breweries.  London (population 7 million) had two that people knew about, and maybe two more that were known to real aficionados.  It seemed bizarre that, in the midst of the UK microbrewing revolution, the nation’s capital, home to legendary historical breweries like Whitbread, Courage, Watney’s, Truman’s and Barclay Perkins, had fewer breweries than places like Sheffield and Derby.
In 2009-2010, that all changed.  When the explosion came, it was all the more forceful for having been kept waiting so long.  Sambrooks opened at the end of 2008, Brodies in 2009, and in 2010 we gained Redemption, The Kernel, Saints and Sinners/Brew Wharf, Camden Town and, a little further out, Windsor and Eton.  With Fuller’s breaking new ground, Meantime moving to a new level, Battersea Brewing somewhere below the radar, Zero Degrees in Blackheath and the Twickenham brewery, London finally has a vibrant brewing scene once more.  Not only that, across the board there’s a level of variety, experimentation and cooperation that gladdens the heart as it excites the palate.
So, lots of moans about 2010, but lots to be very happy about too.  I think the trend towards interesting beer has proved not to be a fad.  Now, when I tell people what I do for a living, about half of them say, “Oh yeah, beer’s pretty cool at the moment isn’t it?  I was trying something new and interesting the other day.”  I don’t know if we’ll ever get the sudden explosion of interest that cider got with Magner’s.  But compared to when I started writing about beer, the variety and enthusiasm surrounding it now is phenomenal.
Here’s to more of the same in 2011.

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2010: What the blazes was all THAT about? (Part two)

Here’s part two of my review of the year – three more arbitrary categories…

Villains of the year: The rise and rise of the neo-pros

I spent most of January trying to offer a robust and factually based defence against the wilful distortions and occasional outright lies told by those who seek to curb our right to drink.  The actual data – from most sources – suggests that Britain’s drink problem is declining, yet the NHS, Government and newspapers from the Daily Mail right through to the Guardian are trying to tell us the ‘epidemic’ is getting worse.  Any rational, scientific analysis of the data shows this is not true.  But no one is giving us that analysis. 
As the biggest consumer body, CAMRA does absolutely nothing to confront or challenge the lies being told about drinkers and pubs.  All it does is ‘welcome’ the bits where people like Alcohol Concern acknowledge the role of well run community pubs as part of the solution, not the problem, and campaign for a lower rate of duty for low strength beers.  Where distortions are put forward about drink in a wider sense, CAMRA remains silent.  Always.  
People like Mike Benner deserve to be congratulated for at least getting Alcohol Concern to concede the point on community pubs.  But for a body that, according to its website, acts ‘as the consumer’s champion in relation to the UK and European beer and drinks industry’ (ie it’s NOT ‘just about real ale’, as many of its defenders are quick to argue) it plays no role at all in supporting the industry or the consumer in this wider attack on our right to drink and our reputation as drinkers.
The BBPA is little better – though it at least has an excuse.  If the BBPA were to actively argue that the scale of alcohol abuse in this country were being deliberately exaggerated and distorted (it doesn’t), the media would say “well you would say that wouldn’t you?  You’re the drinks industry.” Even though this argument is never put to self-declared temperance advocates,  whose “findings” are accepted without dispute.  Every time.
Look at the case of David Nutt, for example.  In the autumn, he published a study that was not peer-reviewed, had a deeply questionable methodology, and had questionable, self-interested motivations, claiming that alcohol was more harmful then hard drugs such as heroin.  His findings were published without question, as ‘authoritative’ scientific fact.  The Guardian broke this story on a Monday.  I wrote to the Guardian pointing out the problems with methodology and the self-interest point, arguing that the Guardian, as professional journalists, should at least show some scepticism about what they were being told.  I was ignored.  An archive search shows that in the week that followed, no dissenting voice was published in the paper arguing against Nutt’s claims.  And yet on the Friday, he was given a full page to ‘answer his critics’ – critics who no one had actually been allowed to hear from.
And look at the case of the Dentist’s Chair.  The legislation banning promotions that encourage excessive alcohol consumption actually names the Dentist’s Chair specifically. Even though, at the time the legislation was passed, it seems that there was only one pub in Newcastle that actually did it.
A few people think I overreact about this.  But I’ve studied Prohibition in some detail for my books, and the point about everything from total Prohibition in the US through to the UK smoking ban in 2007 is that before you pass the legislation, you create a climate in which most people will support it.  That’s what’s happening now, and it’s happening quickly, and it’s happening because we are being deceived about the true scale of the problem.
Ben Goldacre, we need you.
Time to cheer up I think…

Personal regalvanisation event of the year: America

I’ve done so much this year that I haven’t had chance to write about a lot of it.  Partly I’m too busy doing stuff to actually write about it, partly the process of getting features commissioned, delivered and published is akin to the gestation period of an elephant.
In October I went to the US for ten days.  A trip that was based upon a book and a feature I’m writing expanded to include a bit of self-indulgent travelling.
It’s the first time I’ve been to the US for four years, first time in New York for six years, first time I’ve done a big beery adventure since I got back from India at the end of 2007.
And it’s a trip that completely reset me. 
I spend so much of my time now writing about the kind of shit above, arguing with people about beer style definitions, trying to meet trade press deadlines, negotiating the fine balance of political interest around the Cask Report, or worrying about keeping abreast with everything that’s happening in an ever-accelerating craft beer scene, I sometimes wonder why I want to be a professional beer writer, making my living from researching and commenting upon the beer and pub industry.
I went to New York and visited a couple of the obvious craft beer bars, and also found wonderful dive bars where the spirit of the boozer is alive and well.  I went to Brooklyn, had a tour of the Brooklyn Brewery, almost finished in its ambitious expansion, had a tasting of the stunning, poetic boutique beers Garrett Oliver is creating, then went out and got riotously drunk with Garrett in a selection of stylish Brooklyn craft beer bars, before wondering off into the New York night.  The next morning, scrolling back, I had cause to regret the invention of Twitter, reading what I’d posted the night before.
Then I got on a plane to Rochester, New York, the main purpose of my visit.  In an unassuming town, robbed of much of its purpose after the decline of Eastman Kodak, I visited the Old Toad, the pub I’d come to write about, one of the first real ale pubs in North America. 
My plan on Day One had been to sit at the end of the bar, order a pint and take in the ambience, observing anonymously before introducing myself to the people I was there to meet.  I was on the premises for ten seconds before someone tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Pete?”  They were waiting for me, Rochester’s craft beer drinkers, and they proceeded to show me a life-affirmingly excellent time. 
In three days I never got my chance to sit quietly at the end of the bar on my own.  I tried it one afternoon and the staff were sitting there trying to put together a ‘trifecta’ beer, food and whisky matching menu, which they pulled me into.  I mentioned that I loved Buffalo Wings and was taken to the place that served the best wings outside Buffalo itself – which also had a great selection of American micros.  I mentioned I loved the whole dive bar thing and was taken to Rochester’s best dive bars – which, again, had a great selection of American micros.  The Old Toad and its sort-of-sibling, the Tap and Mallet, and the group of great beer fans who drink in them, are worth the price of a transatlantic plane fare on their own.
But I wasn’t done yet.  On the Amtrak, around the Lakes and up to Toronto, to stay for a few days with Rudgie out of Hops and Glory, who now lives there.  A few days in town with him and the excellent Steve Beaumont, and again Toronto’s constituency of craft beer fans, beer writers and Hops and Glory fans were waiting for me in the craft beer pubs and at Volo, a one-time Italian restaurant that now boasted a cask ale festival featuring over thirty Canadian real ales, including some of the best Imperial porters and dark IPAs – sorry, “Cascadian dark ales” – I’ve ever tasted.  We won’t mention Rudgie taking us to the hockey game only to find out we had tickets for the wrong day, because we still had one of those evenings you remember for years, and the following morning he drove me for two hours up through Ontario to Creemore Springs, a craft brewery in a town strongly reminiscent of Groundhog Day’s Punxsutawney, especially when the Halloween snow started flying at the windscreen.  Creemore Springs itself was an object lesson in great Kellerbier and how sometimes, a macro can go into a partnership with a micro successfully, to the benefit of both partners.
Beer people, beer places, and great beer.  I came back from that trip re-energised, repurposed, the flame of passion for this crazy, infuriating, eccentric scene burning brighter than ever, with so many plans and ideas for 2011 and, more importantly, a pubfull of great new friends.
This is what beer is all about.  This is why I started this, was pulled into it, allowed it to change my life.
All of which makes me even more frustrated about…

Green ink moments of the year: Craft beer, CAMRA, real ale and beer styles

Beer is only any good if it’s from cask.  Fuller’s ESB is not ‘to style’ for an ESB.  The new wave of keg beers will consign cask to history.  Brewery X has grown so big I no longer like their beers (even though the beer hasn’t changed).  Micro is good, macro is bad – but how do we define micro?  Craft beer is a meaningless term and we shouldn’t use it.  Greene King IPA is not a true IPA.  Micros are parasites feeding off regional brewers.  Craft beer is only craft beer if the brewery producing it is below a certain size.  This beer is not really real ale if it served with gas pressure.  How can you have a black IPA?
Shut up.  All of you, just shut up.
I include myself in that.  I get pulled into some of these debates – I even fuel them sometimes – but I always regret doing so, and I apologise for every moment in 2010 where I’ve made people focus on these aspects of beer more than they otherwise would have.
On some level they’re important.  But try this test.  Find a friend or work colleague who you think is open to discovering the flavours of your favourite beer, but currently just drinks something boring and characterless.  Now try to interest them in that beer by telling them about your definition of craft beer, or real ale, or talking to them about the politics of craft brewing, or explaining the importance of the absence of cask breathers.
Now you’ve lost their interest and reaffirmed their status as a wine drinker for the foreseeable future, find a similar friend or colleague, and say, “Here, drink this,” and if they’re interested, tell them a bit about the history or provenance of it, or why it tastes as good as it does with reference to how it’s made and what’s in it.
Or if you can’t be bothered, just shut up.  Find the beer that made you fall in love with great beer.  Drink it.  Savour it. Enjoy it. And marvel at how good beer can be, how much happiness it can bring, the flavour sensations, the inspiration, the soft mellow buzz, the conviviality, the laughter, the friends.
Part three tomorrow.

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2010: What the blazes was all THAT about? (Part one)

It’s that time of year again.  As the post-Christmas hangover turns into a week of bleary limbo dreamtime and the whole country forgets what day it is, and beer bloggers turn from listing obsessively every beer they drank on Christmas Day to listing obsessively everything from their Favourite New World Hop of the Year to their Favourite International Collaboration Between Brewers of Between 500 and 3000 Barrels Output Per Year Featuring Russian Oak Barrel Ageing And Resulting In a Beer of 60 IBUS or Above.
I first did a review of the year two years ago, partly because I thought it would be a bit of fun and partly to reflect on broad trends in brewing and pubs.  I repeated the exercise last year and found myself just one of scores of bloggers listing their favourite brewers, favourite beers etc. 
This year, with the Golden Pint Awards, it all seems to have got a bit serious and standardized and regulated and defined, like many things in the beer blogosphere.  I congratulate and support everyone who lists their year’s highs and lows, I offer my piss-take above in good spirit, and I hope you have a good time doing it – it’s great for everyone to be able to compare notes.  It’s just not for me.
So this year I’ve taken a broad sweep in trying to summarise the year in beer.  I’ve invented category titles to fit what I want to write about.  It’s a mix of pure self-indulgence and commentary upon the state of the industry, with the odd great beer thrown in – which kind of sums up my blog. 
The beer blogosphere is expanding so rapidly, evolving so quickly, and becoming so much more intense, I honestly don’t know what or how I should be blogging any more.  Most bloggers don’t worry about that – the whole point of blogging is writing what you want, with no editorial constraints.  So that’s what I’m going to do.
Part one today – the most self-indulgent part.  Part two tomorrow, and thoughts on 2011 Thursday or Friday, if you’re interested. 

“What the fuck was that wooshing past” sensation of the year: Beer Writer of the Year 2009

As I said at the Guild dinner this year, it didn’t feel like a year – that’s because it wasn’t, it was only 51 weeks.  
But it felt like ten.  
I worked for about five years towards winning the BWOTY award.  It’s not like it was the only reason for writing or anything like that, but this is now my chosen career and so I wanted to be recognized as being at the top of the game.  After the work that went into Hops & Glory, winning was more a relief than anything else – I knew it was the best I could do.  If I hadn’t won with that, I doubted I ever would win. 
After I won, I realized I’d been so focused on winning, I had no idea what to do afterwards.  What can or should a beer writer of the year actually do?  
I had hoped I’d be able to be a bit of an ambassador for good beer to the broader world.  Having the title certainly opened some doors and got me some opportunities I wouldn’t have had otherwise, but it failed to get me the presence in national press that I and so many other beer writers still crave. Between us we have had more press opportunities in 2010 certainly than I’ve had before.  But we’re still lacking that big breakthrough.  Newspapers like the Guardian and associated weekend magazines enjoy a significant proportion of good beer fans among their readership, but seem almost ideologically opposed to allowing regular beer coverage in their pages.  Same with TV shows like Saturday Kitchen
I’ve enjoyed and been very humbled by the recognition I now get within the beer world.  But I’ve been just as frustrated by my inability to spread the beer word beyond the already converted.  It’s a long job.  We’re not giving up yet.  But by the time I was handing the title over, it felt like I was only just getting started.  
Happily, after reading through a record number of entries (there are so many of us writing about beer) I passed the title to someone who is very successfully spreading the word about great beer and great pubs to the broader public – Simon Jenkins.

Personal warm glow of the year: The Beer Trilogy

We all judge books by their covers, and we never quite got it right with my first two.  The paperback release of Hops and Glory gave me the opportunity to repackage Man Walks into a Pub and Three Sheets to the Wind, and the chance to heavily rewrite the former to bring it up to date and also get rid of all the factual inaccuracies and repetition of received myth that characterized the first edition.  I’m very, very proud of the reworked edition of my first book – there’s a lot of new stuff in it.  But I still haven’t found anyone who’s actually read the revised edition.
But it has worked – each of the first two books sold double what it did last year, and Hops paperback has sold well too.  
This is partly due to another endless round of book events – talks, tastings and so on, the highlights of which were selling a 250-capacity venue at the Edinburgh International Book Festival and another almost as big at the Ilkley Literary Festival, at which my old English Lit teacher, whom I haven’t seen for 25 years, loomed up out of the crowd.  If we weren’t both Yorkshiremen, we’d have been blubbing like babies.  We almost did. 
These highlights gave me the strength to shrug off the crushing sense of doom and despair when a mere six people turned up at the Notting Hill Travel Bookshop in October, and only two turned up to my final event in Sheffield last week.
I’m now seemingly doing a permanently ongoing round of after-dinner speeches, literary festivals, food festivals and private/corporate tastings – a whole new side to my strange career.  That’s the thing about beer.  It’s never dull, always evolving.

Heroes of the year: How many do you want?

Ron Pattinson for his obsessive historical quest.  I’ve read and used some of what he endlessly quotes, and I’ve read some stuff he hasn’t.  But I could never imagine attacking old brewing records with the gusto he does.  God knows why he does it.  But he’s built up an essential beer history resource.
Fuller’s – who among their multi-pronged approach to examining the relationship between beer and age, did a collaborative brew with Ron and their own past.
Andy Moffatt at Redemption, officially the nicest man in brewing, a man who simply will not let you buy a drink, and then turned up to my Christmas Party with a barrel of London Brewer’s Alliance Porter (more on London Brewers later).
Garrett Oliver.  Thornbridge.  The insane Jamie Hawksworth of the Sheffield and Euston Taps.  The new wave of Czech craft brewers like Matuska.  Stuart Howe at Sharp’s for a commitment to invention that’s made it into the national press.  And everyone who is brewing so much good and interesting beer, I’ve given up even trying to keep track.

More tomorrow.  (This may actually be a three-parter.)

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Three Sheets to the Wind

My second book is the difficult middle child of the beer trilogy.

At the time of writing this post, Hops and Glory is number 3 in Amazon’s beer books, Man Walks into a Pub number 7, and Three Sheets number 39.  That’s pretty typical of the relationship between the three.

It’s simply never had the same level of commercial success or beery acclaim of the other two, and so I start to think of it as being not as good as the other two.

But it is.

I re-read it recently expecting to be embarrassed by it, and I wasn’t.  It is by some way the funniest book I’ve written so far.  It hangs together as a concept.  It has a broad appeal way beyond beer geeks, yet hopefully still manages to teach the geek a new thing or two.

The true story behind Three Sheets was varnished a little for the book.  My editor decided the first draft of the first chapter set the wrong tone, and I think he was right: a conversation between publisher and writer along the lines of ‘why don’t you write a travel book?’ doesn’t really set the right tone in the book itself.  But that conversation did happen, so I’ve decided to publish the first draft of the first chapter – something only me, my former editor and the Beer Widow have read before now – which I’ll cut and paste below.

Just before I do that, if you don’t know the book, the premise is as follows.  After writing Man Walks into a Pub, a history of beer in Britain, it kind of made sense to do an international comparison of beer drinking.  There are two ways I describe the book, depending on who I’m talking to: the laddish way and the cultural studies way. Both are equally true.

The laddish way is that I wanted to go on the world’s biggest pub crawl.  I drank in over 300 bars in 26 cities in 13 different countries.  As a self confessed ‘crap traveller’, most of the humour comes at my own expense.  You’d never believe the person who struggles to negotiate getting on a bus just outside Dublin is the same person who took a barrel of beer on a three month sea voyage to India.

The cultural studies description is that it’s a search for the meaning of beer.  I was struck by the beer drinking moment, the significance of it, the uniqueness of it compared to other drinks.  Also, I was writing at a time when binge drinking hysteria took off in Britain, when everyone in the media was making a simple, causal link between the availability and consumption of beer, and anti-social behaviour among people who had been drinking.  This didn’t make sense if you consider that there are many countries that drink more than the UK but don’t seem to share our problems of anti-social behaviour.  So I wanted to see if there was such a thing as a universal ‘meaning of beer’, or whether drinking culture is shaped more by national cultural traits and characteristics.

Practising what sociologists euphemistically call ‘participant observation research’, I attempted to drink how the locals drink in each country I visited, and discovered that the answer is a bit of both.

There is a universal meaning of beer.  The deep rhythms and meanings of beer drinking – the fellowship, bonding and democracy it represents – are both universal and timeless.

But the way in which we drink – the styles of beer, where we drink it, how and it what servings – are culturally determined by the country in question.

In an age of globalisation, many of these local traits are disappearing as cultures homogenise.  In places like Japan, Spain and China, I felt like this was a ‘last chance to see’ type book as global giants invaded.

People who have read the book have really enjoyed it.  I even get letters and emails from people who use it as a travel guide in some of the cities I visited.  So if you haven’t given it a go yet – and the sales figures suggest you haven’t – please give it a try!

Here’s that never-seen-before original opening, rightly deleted from the book.  It’s more travelly than beery, in fact it’s hardly beery at all.  Hope you enjoy it.  I’ll break it up with some of the photos from my travels.

One: “Well, I’ve been to Blackpool a fair few times, I can tell you…”

St. Andrews

“Tell me.  Do you trAAARGHvel?”
The word echoes off the walls, those capital letters really giving it some force.  The speaker curls his mouth around the word, performing a passionate verbal cunnilingus that really shouldn’t be seen or heard in public.  His lips are wet, and I swear his eyes glaze and unfocus as he barks it.
He’s been at it fairly constantly since we arrived four days ago, at the start of Fresher’s Week.  I’ve ignored him until now, having very little to say to a braying, ginger Sloane Ranger.  But he won’t go away.  Every night after dinner he sits there in the corner of the hall of the residence common room, telling stories about how crap the buses are in Afghanistan, how charming the natives in Pakistan, how amAAAYZing the sunsets in Goa.  And every night, the gaggle of first-year girls surrounding him grows larger.  After three nights talking to cumbersome blokes studying chemistry and a strange little man called Simon Dresner who describes himself as a “Sherlock Holmes enthusiast” (yes, in those exact words), and who the porters keep trying to throw out because they think he’s a child from the local school, it’s become clear to me that the only way I’m going to meet any of these rosy-cheeked, fresh-faced girls is by joining them in Sloaney Ginger TRAAARGHveller’s orbit.  So here I am, hovering on the fringes of his audience, when he interrupts an anecdote about a gourd to subject me to the full honk. 
“Tell me.  Do you trAAARGHvel?”
Of course, he already knows the answer.  He can see it in my eyes.  His apparent attempt to include me in the conversation is really no more than a strategy to keep me out.  And what’s this “tell me” at the front all about?  For Morrissey’s sake: only chat show hosts, people in TV programmes like Crossroads and Howard’s Way and utter twats start a sentence with “tell me.” 
Do I travel?  I’m eighteen years old and in my first term at university.  And it’s 1986: A-levels are difficult, gap years are a privilege not a right, and we can remember when it was all fields around here.  Oh, and I’ve just finished growing up in Barnsley, a Yorkshire town whose residents are unlikely to be famous for their spirit of adventure any time soon.
I have hammered my student railcard over the summer, but I’ve got just enough sense to realise that’s not what the Sloaney Ginger TRAAARGHveller means.  I’ve never even been on a plane, unless you count the time we got to fly in a glider when I was in scouts.  And that was in North Yorkshire.  When I was thirteen I went by bus to France on an exchange scheme, and lived for three weeks in Pas de Calais with Bruno, who managed to embody every negative stereotype the British have of the French before I even knew what they were.  I’ll admit I earned a bit of kudos back at school by bringing back the news that the French had toilets called pissoirs, a fantastic triumph because I said ‘piss’ in French class and the teacher had to congratulate me.  But apart from that, I’ve never been abroad in my life.  I’m in Scotland now, and apart from Bruno’s house it’s as far away as I’ve ever been from the place I called home until a few days ago.  I don’t even have a passport.
They like their beer REALLY cold in Sydney 
Sloaney Ginger TRAAARGHveller knows all this of course.  I’ve never met him before, but he can tell.  And he knows I’m trying to muscle in on his action.  He’s counting on me saying something like “Travel?  Well, I’ve been to Blackpool a fair few times, I can tell you.”  But I’m determined that he will not humiliate me in front of the rosy-cheeked girls.[1] 
In this one question, I learn my first lesson at university: never trust a Second Year who comes back “to help out” during Fresher’s Week.  They’re after one thing.  They didn’t get it when it was their turn, so they’re using their extra experience to steal it from you now.  But this realisation has come too late.  “No, I don’t travel,” I smile back.  You smug cock, I add telepathically. 
For a second, the girls acknowledge my existence.  But it’s all calculated.  Sloaney Ginger TRAAARGHveller looks at me with disappointment, a little sympathy, a smidgen of disgust, a soupcon of loathing.  Apart from anything else, he’s placed my accent.  A moment later I will cease to exist, not just for him, but for the whole group.  “ANYway, as I was saying, these gourds…” 
I wander off into the hallway, to gaze – again – at the notice board crammed with appeals from an array of societies that are desperate for me to join them.  Three days later, Steve From Luton, who dresses all in black and never goes to dinner or sits in the common room afterwards, hears The Smiths moaning from my room while he’s walking past.  He pops his head around the door and we start talking about music.  Pretty soon, Sloaney Ginger TRAAARGHveller is forgotten along with the cumbersome medics (though sadly Simon Dresner endures for the next four years), and the rosy-cheeked girls are dropped in favour of the whey-faced indie chicks.  And that’s the end of my interest in travelling.
An ‘Ice Cold in Alex’ moment in Barcelona 
A lot happens in my next few years at St. Andrews University.  I become lead singer of the uni’s only punk cabaret band (with Luton Steve on rhythm guitar, The Other Steve on bass, Andrew the Bad on drums[2], and Iain ‘Bonker’ Jameson, who used to jam with Wet Wet Wet before they were famous, our secret-if-rather-unstable weapon on lead guitar.)  I run for office in the Student’s Union, and win because no-one can really be that bothered about standing against me, seeing how I seem to want it so much.  I get to know Nicholas Parsons so well that he feels unembarrassed about me seeing him in his underpants.  And after putting my Bono-at-Live-Aid mullet out of its abject misery, I even start to enjoy some success with girls of both the rosy-cheeked and whey-faced-indie-chick variety. 
But the travel situation never changes.  I get nervous going to Luton to visit Steve.[3]  Many of my new middle-class friends enrol with BUNAC and jet off to be handlers at North American summer camps, or inter-rail across Europe.  Back in Barnsley, my non-uni mates (who are now working and driving cars) start going on Club 18-30 holidays.  They come back with stories of the exoticism of the food, the beer, the women and, especially, the contents of their arses.  Meanwhile, I spend summers back home in a village where pit closures have removed not only most of the jobs, but also the whole point of the community existing, and get deservedly laughed at in Barnsley Job Centre when I ask if there are any summer jobs for students.  Or I stay in St. Andrews, becoming more deeply involved in the Union and working behind the bar in our favourite pub, the Niblick, my skinny frame blissfully unaware of the impact this will ultimately have. 
And all the time, at the back of my mind, there’s this assumption that people who Travel can do so because they have skills that I don’t yet possess.  Skills like being able to start conversations with people you don’t know.  Skills like being able to walk into a travel agent’s.  I really don’t think I’m scared of flying or anything – I’d dearly love to fly.  What I’m scared of is being rumbled as the gauche, nervous bumpkin from Barnsley I’ll always remain.  Travel simply doesn’t make it onto my agenda.
Four years later I eventually get my first passport.  I’m going out with a girl from Canada, and it’s serious.  I’m going to spend six weeks of the summer living with her family.  She’s already gone home, so I’m going to buy a plane ticket on my own, go to Heathrow on my own (via Luton, obviously – you have to take these things one step at a time) and get on a Boeing 747 and travel six thousand miles.  On my own.  I’ve just turned twenty two years old.  How brave am I?
Listen, they know why this makes us snigger. 
“I’m sorry, this flight is full.”
“It’s WHAT?!” 
Thinking back to this incident, trying to recreate it, I find it impossible to re-inhabit my twenty two year-old self.  Instead I see myself from a third-person perspective.  I’m looking down from the ceiling of Heathrow Terminal Four at a wet-behind-the-ears student wearing a cheap Burton suit and a bleached blond flat-top haircut.  His face crumples.  He’s trying to look stern and angry, but the smart money is on him bursting into tears.  Perhaps at the time I had left my body, as people do when they’re close to death.
My briefcase clatters to the floor.[4]  I start to sweat into my suit.[5] 
“I’m sorry sir, but it is policy that we overbook these flights, and sometimes when we’re very busy, seats are over-allocated.”
This makes no sense at all.  I’m here precisely two and a half hours before check-in, as requested.  I’ve bought and paid for my ticket (well, my Dad has).  Jill will be waiting for me at Vancouver airport.  (Not yet obviously, but by the time this plane lands.  I hope.)  I have to be able to get on it. 
“So what we’ll have to do is upgrade you to Business Class,” finishes the check-in lady.
I’m back in my body with a bump.  Obviously I’ve never heard of this practice before, but I like it.  On my first ever proper flight, I am a transatlantic Business Class traveller.
Later, people will tell me that however unlikely it sounds, it was probably the suit that did it.  Sometimes they do have to upgrade people, and they choose those who look the part.  The main reason for this – I know now – is so that upgrades are not too obvious and insulting to the people who’ve paid several thousand pounds to sit in Business Class legitimately.
“I got upgraded!”  I say to the two middle-aged businessmen sitting next to me, as we taxi out to the runway.  “My first ever flight and I’m in Business Class!  I’ve never even been on a plane before!  Have I fastened this seatbelt properly?  Oh look – socks and a toothbrush!  Do you have to pay for these?  NO?  Fantastic!  Ooh yes, a glass of wine please.  No, not champagne, I couldn’t afford – what, that’s free as well?  Oh, go on then!  Yeah, through the student travel service I got this ticket for three hundred and fifty quid.  Well, my Dad lent me the money.  And I’m in Business Class!  Sitting next to real Businessmen!  This is the first time I’ve ever flown you know.  Upgraded just like that!  Can you believe it?  Yes, I know I’m very lucky.  Yep, I certainly do appreciate it.  What?  You want to watch the film now so you have to put on your headphones?  Oh, okay then.  That’s strange; the film on my set doesn’t seem to have started yet…” 
I don’t know who those guys were, but to this day I have never been upgraded again.[6] 
Look, it’s true (Oktoberfest) 
Over the next ten years I do start to earn a few air miles.  A few more trips to Canada, two honeymoons (don’t ask), three package holidays and a smattering of business trips later, my passport has some stamps in its pages.  But I never compete in the destination point-scoring of my work colleagues.  I never holiday in places like Guatemala or Mauritius, or even Ibiza.  I never trek.  I never backpack.  I never eat anything I can’t pronounce. 
I certainly never Travel like my friend Allan, who after graduating does Peace Studies in America during the first Gulf War, almost dies of the irony, and recuperates by going to Central America to teach English, where huge floods wipe his village clean away, and he has to climb trees when he wants to go to the toilet, finding a comfortable branch at a safe height from which to do his business. 
I never Travel like my friend Alastair, who starts at St. Andrews after spending a year in Pakistan.  The habit of haggling over everything from big scarves to the price of a pint doesn’t endear him to the local barmen, and he achieves the dubious fame of being regarded as tight even by his fellow Scots.  After graduation he goes to teach English in Cairo.  Three years later, the day he leaves his apartment to return home, he’s clearing out his room and realises that if he’d had his bed where his wardrobe was, he’d have woken up to a view of the pyramids every morning. 
No.  All my travel is strictly lower case, safely looked after either by holiday reps or office PAs.  Holidays are full of transfers to and from the airport, all-inclusive deals and vouchers that need to be given to nice people in slightly patronising uniforms.  Business travel means someone else doing all the booking, then giving me envelopes stuffed with tickets, currency and detailed itineraries.
This is my secret.  A decade and a bit after university, I’ve been to America and Africa and Hong Kong, and I count myself very lucky to have done so.  But by today’s standards, I am a Crap Traveller.  I hear they don’t even let you into university these days unless you’ve caught dysentery in Phuket or planted mango trees in Kerala.  Small children chide me for my naivety about the world and tell me I need to get out more.  I remain the same ingénue the honking Sloaney Ginger TRAAARGHveller saw straight through nearly twenty years ago.  And nothing will change that.
 Night out down Shanghai


 “You should write a travel book, you know.”
If we listed all the possible things Jason, my editor, could have said to me, I hope you now realise that this particular sentence would rank some way below “You’ve won a Pulitzer”.
We’re having lunch together, celebrating the end of hostilities on my first book, Man Walks into a Pub, a ‘sociable history’ of beer.  I’ve finally written it and rewritten it to his satisfaction, it’s printed, and it’s ‘selling in’ to book shops better than we dared hope.  It will never cause J.K. Rowling or Dan Brown any sleepless nights, but it looks like the publishers won’t lose money on it.  And that means they’ll entertain the idea of me writing another book for them.  We’re talking about what this book could be, and I’m wondering if this travel nonsense is just a desperate attempt to change the subject from the various ideas I just finished proposing[7].  But looking at Jason now, I realise he’s been thinking about this seriously.
He’s nodding and chewing thoughtfully, oblivious to my incredulity.  I try to frame a response, but it takes a while.
“Umm… why?” I eventually manage. 
“Well.  Travel writing is really hot just now.  Not guidebooks, you know, proper travel writing.  Stuff that’s engaging and funny.  You’d be good at that”
“You need a twist,” he continues.  “You can’t just write a straight destination guide.  There’s got to be a hook.  An angle.  And, well, beer seems like a good angle.  It fits.  And no-one else has done it.”
Suddenly it makes sense.  I start to get that upgrade feeling again.  I need to choose my next words very carefully.  “So… you’re saying that you will pay for me to go around the world drinking beer and writing about it?” 
“No.  Of course not.”
“What I’m saying is, if you pay for yourself to go around the world drinking beer, or get someone else to pay you to do it, we’ll almost definitely publish the result.”
Almost definitely?”
“Go away.  Think of an angle.”
“Around the world in eighty pints?”
“No.  Something interesting.”
“Perhaps you could get a TV company to pay for you to go round and do a programme off the back of it.”
“Excellent idea!  Do you have any contacts we could talk to about that?”
The day I fell in love with America. 
A few weeks later, I resign from my job without another to go to, so I can divide my time between working freelance and taking unpaid time off to focus on finding the hook.  I phone my Mum and tell her the news: I’m going to be a travel writer.  She’s silent for a few seconds. 
“Are you sure about this, luv?” she asks eventually.

[1] I’m perfectly capable of doing this myself without any help from him, as I will shortly demonstrate in tonight’s three-legged pub crawl.
[2] Trust me, that’s as much as you want to hear about Andrew the Bad.
[3] Of course, we all still do.  But in the late 1980s the nervousness is because they have posh accents, there are proper curry restaurants, and Steve’s dad does a job that means he has to wear a suit.
[4] Looking back, I’m really not sure why I’m carrying a briefcase.  I think it was a 21st birthday present from my parents, who had by now resigned themselves to the fact that I wasn’t going to come back to work in the carpet factory, and were symbolically showing me that they understood I was now an upper-class twit, or at least a middle-class twat.  But I’m going on holiday.  Apart from my recent sabbatical in the Student Union, I don’t have a job.  But there it is.  I can see it now.  It’s definitely a briefcase.  It probably has 2000AD comics and copies of Melody Maker inside.
[5] I remember why this was though.  I had no idea what people wore on planes.  My only frame of reference was the seventies Airport movie franchise, and in every film the men all wore brown suits.  So a week before the trip, I went to Burton’s and splashed out sixty quid.  Thinking about it, perhaps the briefcase was just a misguided attempt to complete the look.  After all, I had to make a bit of extra effort to compensate for the fact that I’d compromised on collar width and tie kipperness. 
[6]In fact I’m the only person I know ever to have been travelling on a fully paid-for business class ticket and be downgraded to economy on a long-haul flight, which happened to me eleven years later.  There’s karma for you.
[7] Which, for our purposes here, we can refer to as: 1. “Been done”; 2. “Not really sure what the hook is’; 3. “Hmmm…” [uncomfortable silence] and 4.  “A novel you say?  Oh look!  There’s the sales director from Harper Collins!  Hi Jim!” 

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Big week in Pete Brown Beer World

* Long self-indulgent post alert – I beg your forgiveness, but this one’s been years in the making… *

It’s the week of ‘The Beer Trilogy’.  Pan Macmillan have released rejacketed, shiny new editions of my three books.  And it’s also Stoke Newington Literary Festival Week – the event organised by the Beer Widow which, perhaps inevitably, I’m speaking at, and perhaps more inevitably, the event I’ve spent the last month or so working full time co-organising.  I’ve got a bit of a taste for it to tell the truth, though with only four days to go my organisational skills are starting to unravel.

So this week I’m going to do a shameless sales plug for each of the three books – shameless but honest, so you can decide if you need to buy them (again) or not.  And I’m also going to reveal more about my events at the festival.  Somewhat astonishingly, although the session with Tony Benn being interviewed by Suzanne Moore sold out last week, and Stewart Lee reading from Arthur Machen is about to sell out any second now, there are still tickets left for both my events.
So what to talk about first?
Let’s start with this one:

Man Walks into a Pub was my first book.  I’d wanted to write books since I was nine years old.  When I was 25 I won a short story competition run by Time Out.  I thought this would be the first step on the road to literary stardom, that the phone would ring off the hook with agents asking if I had a novel, and I’d reply “Why yes, here’s my coming of age novel about a bloke who went to university in St Andrews and now works in London in an ad agency and fucking hates it.  Totally fictitious obviously.”

The phone didn’t ring.  Worse than that, Time Out cancelled the short story competition and have never run it since.  But I used the laptop I won – my first ever – to finish the novel, flog it until one agent was kind enough to tell me how bad it was instead of giving me polite refusals like all the others, wrote a few short stories that got better and better but remained stubbornly unoriginal, and finally bought a bigger computer, discovered real time strategy games and stopped writing for a couple of years.

Nine years after the Time Out short story, Man Walks into a Pub was published.  Lots of people bought it, and continued to buy it over the years.  At first it had this cover, the idea for which me and Chris came up with in the pub:

That’s me at the bar in the background – that’s how long ago this was.  When I did readings and events and interviews, any women present struggled unsuccessfully to hide their disappointment that I wasn’t the bloke in the foreground.  CAMRA felt this cover was ‘yobbish’ for some reason, when they slated the book, and WHSmith didn’t like it either.  But I did.

Then, when we moved from the posh ‘trade paperback’ edition to the ‘mass market’ paperback, it had this cover, which I hate beyond reason, and snarl at whenever I see it:

The first time I saw it I said, “Hmm, not sure about the rough; when do we see the finished design?”

“This is the finished design,” replied my editor.

“It can’t be.  I could do better myself on PowerPoint.  The image looks like a piece of clip art, for God’s sake,” I said.

“Well WHSmith say they love it and with this cover they’ll order seven thousand copies,” said my editor.

“I love it,” I said, “It’s a fantastic cover.”

And so we went with it, and then Smith’s changed their minds and didn’t take a single copy, and we were stuck with it for six long years.

Not many authors get the chance to do a revised second edition of their books, but you lot kept buying it, and it continues to make a bit of money for Macmillan and a much smaller bit of money – about the price of a cheap holiday – for me each year.  But as time went on, it wasn’t just the shit cover I felt guilty about.

MWIAP narrowly beat Martyn Cornell’s Beer: The Story of the Pint onto the bookshelves (something for which I think Martyn may just about have forgiven me).  They’re two very different books on exactly the same subject and I’d urge you to buy both if you haven’t already done so.  Mine is definitely the easier read.  But one of the reasons for that is that I simply repeated all the tall stories that have been handed down through beer books over the last century or so – everyone says it, they were saying it in that book in 1912, it must be true.  But we live in an age when that’s no longer good enough.  The blogosphere, especially writers like Martyn and Ron Pattinson, pinpoint myths and bullshit and destroy them with forensic analysis.  The start of that – for me at least – was reading Martyn’s book and realising that key parts of mine were inaccurate.

On top of that, the world moved on.  Man Walks into a Pub was finished before Progressive Beer Duty caused an explosion in microbrewing, before most beer fans in Britain were aware of the stunning beers coming out of the States, before the rise of neo-prohibitionism, before beer duty hikes and the smoking ban, before the Licensing Act and the liberalisation of pub opening hours.  It was badly out of date.

Finally, it was my first book – and it was trying too hard to please.  The tone and overall voice of the book was still right, but occasionally the footnotes grated and some of the ‘jokes’ made me wince on rereading them.

So: new cover that pisses all over the previous two and provides an essential addition to any beer fan’s book shelf aside, if you’ve bought/read MWIP before, do you need to buy it again?  Here’s a list of changes.  Depending on your level of interest and sanity, you can decide for yourself:

  • Overall, a general read-through correcting bits that were factually inaccurate, removing the jokes and footnotes that didn’t work, changing bits that were just too gauche or naive.  
  • A new preface to the second edition which expands on the story of how I went from Stella ad man to beer writer, and the thinking behind the new edition.
  • Some newer, more clearly thought-out stuff on the origins of beer and what early beer was like.
  • A completely new section on the origins and history of Porter, which owes a debt of thanks to Messrs Cornell and Pattinson.  And the admission that the most often quoted bit of the first edition – the Meux Brewery disaster – was a load of bollocks.  I’ve tried to atone for this by offering the most detailed, factual account so far of what really happened on that fateful day in 1814.
  • A new section on IPA – a very brief precis of the story in Hops and Glory.
  • A more accurate and expanded version of the origins of Pilsner.
  • A fully updated and revised version of the chapter on CAMRA.  I first gained notoriety with this book by being the first beer writer (that I knew of) to slag off CAMRA in print.  Since then I think I’ve changed and I think CAMRA have changed – for the better in both respects (my recent spats notwithstanding).  I set out to cut down the slagging bit and write a new section on how the organisation has progressed over the last decade.  That part is present and correct.  But I wasn’t quite as successful in cutting down the criticism as I’d hoped.  OK, I admit it, the critical bit is even longer than it was.  But it is balanced by fulsome praise where it is due.  I hope it also comes across that I no longer slag CAMRA as one homogenous organisation: some bits and people do great stuff, other bits and other people do silly stuff.
  • A fully revised and updated version of the chapter about big lager brands.  Gone are the pages of praise for Stella.  I’m not recanting my admiration for the brand of ten years ago, merely documenting its rapid fall from grace, as part of the account of the decade when big lager brewers simply ran out of ideas, and the craft beer revolution took off.
  • A fully revised and updated version of the chapter on the recent history of pubs, taking in the PubCos etc, and all the shit that pubs now face, the impact of licensing reform and so on.
  • Finally, a new last chapter on the rise of neo-prohibitionism.  This is not a rant.  Nor is it a forensic analysis of the bullshit claims of the neopros like I did in January on this blog.  It’s a history of binge drinking as a media and political phenomenon, which demonstrates that the current case against drink is built on a tissue of bad science, political expediency and media bollocks.

Apart from that, large sections of the book – the core story – have not changed.  But only one chapter out of fourteen has had no revisions at all.  I’d say 15-20% of the total text is different.  

The official release date is Friday (4th June), and Amazon is still showing the horrible old cover.  But the new editions are already in my local bookshop and if you look closely, the version on Amazon is the revised edition.  We just need to get the visual changed.

If you haven’t read it before, I really think you should order it right now.

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Wikio Mea Culpa

Here are the REVISED Wikio rankings for April.

Tricky situation, because every month they offer a blogger an exclusive, before they go live.  There’s a narrow window to get this exclusive up before the rankings go live.  So even though it looked dodgy, I had to go with it – but it turns out it was wrong.  So here are the right ones:

1 Pete Brown’s Blog (=)
2 Pencil & Spoon (=)
3 Brew Dog Blog (=)
4 The Pub Curmudgeon (+2)
5 The Beer Nut (=)
6 Tandleman’s Beer Blog (-2)
7 Woolpack Dave’s beer and stuff blog (=)
8 Spittoon (+4)
9 `It’s just the beer talking` ? Jeff Pickthall’s Blog (+1)
10 The Bitten Bullet (-1)
11 Beer Reviews (+6)
12 Zythophile (+3)
13 Boak and Bailey’s Beer Blog (-5)
14 Called to the bar (-3)
15 Reluctant Scooper (+4)
16 Real Ale Reviews (=)
17 Brew Wales (-3)
18 The Wine Conversation (-5)
19 Travels With Beer (+1)
20 Taking the beard out of beer! (+9)

Ranking by Wikio

A couple of thoughts and observations:

The fact that I post these rankings more than anyone else doesn’t mean I attach more importance to them than anyone else.  Wikio asked me to co-ordinate this for them and I agreed, not having any reason to refuse.  I view it as a bit of harmless fun.  You’re entitled to disagree.  But every month I ask if anyone else would like to have the exclusive ands trail it on your blog – it’s an extra spike in hits if nothing else.  Hardly anyone ever volunteers.  It would be great if more people would like to share it around.

Secondly, I still stand by my challenge about making beer blogging more interesting.  Some people agree, but it’s upset some other people.

I hate upsetting people.  I hate spats and fights.  I have enough of them so believe me, I do know how much I hate them.  I write something I feel has to be written, and then when it all kicks off my stomach starts churning, I lose my appetite, and it’s hanging like a cloud at the back of my head, infecting everything I do, until it dies down.

My blogging challenge coincided with the decision of Impy Malting to return to the beer blogging world after a long absence (Hurrah!  Impy’s blogging again!).  Reading her return post (I recommend you do)  – which was largely about why we blog – helped me clarify what was behind my ‘blogging’s getting boring post’ better than I expressed it initially, so I want to expand on that here.

It comes down to why we blog.  I started blogging for the same reason I do all my writing – to turn on new people to beer and educate casual drinkers on delights they may not be aware of, and to try and help build a career as a full-time writer.  Both these reasons require a larger, general readership if I’m going to succeed. I also have to accept that I was established as a beer writer before I started blogging.

But different people start blogging for different reasons.  The wonder of blogging is that you can simply write what you like and publish it in seconds.  Some people might do it just to see the satisfaction of “I made this”.  Other people do it as a form of therapy.  Some do it just for themselves, and some do it for a specific group of people – friends or colleagues or family – with absolutely no care at all what anyone else might think.

No one has any right to tell these people what they should or shouldn’t be doing with their blogs.

So then we come on to the beer blogging community.  Impy talks about how she decided to blog about beer for her own reasons, and when she started doing it she found this community of beer bloggers (that’s you guys) and was delighted to be welcomed in by them.  It opened up a whole new dimension of chat, opinion sharing, ideas and friendship.  I’ve found exactly the same – and more.  I do the occasional bit of consultancy with brewers, and the first thing I tell them in marketing is that beer brands can now be built on line, that the blogging community represents a new medium, a new audience, through which beers can be made famous.  Ask Brew Dog.  Ask Crown Brewer Stu.



The thing about beer blogging is that, even though we may be read by a wider audience, the people who comment on our blogs tend to be other beer bloggers.  This tends to dictate the directions of the conversations we have, the subjects we cover.  We start to write specifically for other beer bloggers.  And ultimately that means the conversation becomes a closed loop, ultimately excluding someone who isn’t a member, or at least offering them no invitation to join in.

I include myself in this, more than anyone – shit, look how often I post the Wikio rankings – as Beer Nut pointed out, on that evidence I’m worse than anyone.  But I am my own harshest critic.  Well, apart from Roger Protz.  And my agent.  And the Beer Widow.  OK, I’m my fourth harshest critic.

My challenge to beer bloggers is a challenge to myself.  When I rewrote Man Walks into a Pub this winter I realised how far I’ve strayed from the original reasons I began writing about beer, and I want to get back to that place.

But it’s also a challenge to anyone who feels like sharing it.

If you blog about beer and you’re perfectly happy having a closed-loop chat with other beer bloggers, sharing in-jokes and comparing your latest discoveries – and I’m not making a value judgement there, it’s your right to do so – I have no right to tell you to do something differently.  So I unreservedly apologise if I’ve offended or come across as too bossy.

But if you’re blogging because, like me, you want to (a) continually improve as a writer and/or (b) be read by more people, my challenge still stands.

You never know – other beer bloggers might find it refreshing too.

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I remember when it were all fields round here

Wading through mud at the moment trying to finish off the rewrites for the new edition of Man Walks into a Pub, due out 4th June with a spanking new cover from the fella who did Hops & Glory. Making up the trilogy with the H&G paperback will be a newly covered Three Sheets, which isn’t changing apart from that cover, but it’s lovely to see them all together looking like a set – my beer trilogy. It makes me feel like a proper grown-up writer.

I had lunch yesterday with someone I knew from the beer world before I’d had a single word published, and it made me think how rapidly everything has changed – when we knew each other I was working full-time in an ad agency, Stella Artois was widely respected as a quality beer and in double digit growth, Progressive Beer Duty didn’t exist so, therefore, neither did the British craft brewing revolution. Cask ale was in terminal decline and seemingly drunk by no one under 50. CAMRA had half the membership it does now and the mere thought of them as an organisation and the terrible image they were giving beer at the time made me seethe with rage and frustration – as did the fact that not a single beer writer seemed to criticise them in print.
Google was new, and most of us accessed it via a dial-up modem. Around the time I finally finished my first manuscript of MWIAP, I was in a meeting with someone who had a laptop on his desk that wasn’t plugged into anything. Nevertheless, at one point he said “I’ll just print that” and pressed some buttons. Christ, I thought, he’s pretending to print something. Why would he do that?
It was only when he returned with the printed document that I realised I’d just seen wireless networking for the first time. This was 2002. 18 months before, I’d read a cyberpunk thriller centred around the (fictitious, impossible) idea.
Christ, I sound like an old fart. But this is my point – it only seems like five minutes ago really. I still think of myself most of the time as a new kid on the beer writing block. It’s disorientating when I get a brief glimpse of self-awareness that I might be one of the old guard.
Do I feel like an old fart?
Well, today I had a quick look at Twitter and my blog roll – I’m trying to ration myself while I get this bloody book finished – and in the middle of overhauling some very outdated text I was struck by the sheer scale of what’s happening in beer now, loving it and at the same time feeling slightly panicked by the fact that, as Beer Writer of the Year, I should be somehow attempting to keep on top of everything and have a comment on everything, and that is utterly impossible now.
So I’m surprised to find that I have no view one way or the other on the wisdom of Brew Dog’s latest venture: I’d like to taste a 41% IPA and think it’s a fresh departure for super-strong beers, but I still had to roll my eyes when it was announced. I think Sink the Bismarck is a shit and self-indulgent name for the beer, but at the same time I really struggle to work up any moral outrage at making fun of the Germans and referencing the war.
I fins myself applauding Cooking Lager’s lout ticking post, but have no new comment to make on the whole ticking issue.
And on the neoprohibition stuff, I’m delighted to see Phil Mellows continuing to bring some excellent new findings and developments to light, but have to curtail myself from spending another entire month digging into the issue.
There are so many people writing about these things now, and they’re all worthy of coverage. So I’m not complaining – I’m just a bit overwhelmed at how much the collision of craft beer passion and new media has generated and wondering – both from a beer worlds and a personal point of view – where do we go next?
In the short term – back to revising chapter ten – the one that slagged off CAMRA…

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I’d like to thank my mom, Jesus, Barry the Barrel, Brew Dog, the Portman Group…

Last night I was named Beer Writer of the Year at the British Guild of Beer Writers Awards. Hops and Glory was awarded the Budweiser Budvar John White Travel Bursary, and this – with a nod to my writing in other fields – put me through for the top gong.

The fact that, for the first year, the award was renamed in honour of Michael Jackson, makes winning it doubly special to me.

I started writing about beer about six or seven years ago. I rant a lot, get frustrated, bore people sometimes. Well quite a lot, actually. I sometimes ask myself why I stepped off an executive career ladder – a ladder I was climbing reasonably quickly – to do this. I earn a fraction of what I used to, and an even tinier fraction of what I’d now be earning if I’d stayed on that ladder. But you might also ask why – when we read about binge drinking media shite, closing pubs, neo-prohibitionism, industry in-fighting, political wankery and all that – why so many people are picking up a pen or sitting down at a keyboard and deciding they want to write about beer – often in return for no money at all.

I fucking love beer. I love the taste and appreciation of it. I love the society and culture that surrounds it, and the way it influences society and culture more broadly. I love the history of it, and what that history tells us about ourselves. I love the way it’s an international standard, a universal signifier of unpretentious sociability. I love the fact that I’ve made scores of genuine new friends through it – many of whom I’ve yet to meet physically. I love the way it inspires and intoxicates me – both in a physiological sense and an intellectual one.

I never, ever regret giving up a career in advertising – which, if you do it well, makes people a little less happy with what they currently have as part of making them want something shinier and newer – for a career in beer – which, in the vast, vast majority of lives it touches, makes those lives warmer, richer and smilier.

The rule last night was that nobody wins more than one category, so once Hops and Glory won, I was out of the running for stuff like blogging and trade press. Maybe if things were different I’d have picked up an award for this blog, and maybe I wouldn’t. It’s irrelevant. What did happen is that Woolpack Dave was runner up in the online category, and Young Dredge won it for Pencil and Spoon. I’m absolutely delighted for both of them. Mark Dredge emailed me out of the blue about eighteen months ago and said he wanted to be a writer and did I have any advice. I gave him some advice and he took it. And then he attacked his task with astonishing energy and dedication, and grew as a writer incredibly quickly, and did some new things no one has done before, and made electronic media his own. Mark and Woolpack Dave started blogging on the same day as each other, a little over a year ago. Now they’re recognised asthe leaders in their field. The world of beer writing can never again be complacent or self-satisfied – something it was accused of regularly when I was new to the game. (Every now and again I still think of myself as a newcomer to this. But increasingly, six years feels like several lifetimes in beer writing years).

It’s a privilege to be able to write about what I fucking love and have people read it – whether that’s in a book, a magazine or newspaper or on a blog. I love the interplay of different media and the way I have to change my writing style between them. Blogging makes me a better book writer, which makes me a better journalist, which makes me a better blogger – or maybe it’s the other way round or back to front.

Today I’m going to write my final column of the year for the Publican and then I’m going to a beer festival and/or a bar and I’m going to exceed the recommended daily guidelines of alcohol unit intake. I’m going to get drunk. I’m going to get shitfaced, sozzled, pissed, bladdered, cunted, wankered, soused, and most of the other 1346 words for inebriation I’ve collected over the years. I’m going to have a good time doing it, and the people who are with me are going to have a good time too – a better time than they would if they stayed in and watched the telly. And when I come home with The Beer Widow and a few mates, I’m going to share with them a bottle of Bass Kings Ale, brewed in 1902, which cost me over a hundred quid, and I’m going to marvel at the miracle of beer all over again.

And then on Monday, I’m probably going to weigh in about Portman banning Tokyo* and how they haven’t really, or moan about the fact that because I’ve bought books on beer from them in the past, Amazon just emailed me telling me I might be interested in a book called ‘Reducing Harmful Drinking’, and off we’ll go again.

Have a bibulous weekend.


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Well that was nice. What next?

Nearing the end of my four month promotional tour for Hops and Glory, which will no doubt come as a relief to regular readers of my blog.

Yesterday was a good day. I arrived in Nantwich, Cheshire, to speak at the food festival here and help judge CAMRA’s Champion Beer of Cheshire at the beer festival. About an hour before I went on stage, I got an e-mail from my editor with lots of very good news in it.
First, sales of Hops and Glory are about double what I thought they were. In four months, the £14.99 hardback has sold more copies than the £10.99 trade paperback of Three Sheets ever did. This book has been an obsession since the night in the pub when the idea presented itself to me uninvited in December 2006, and will be until my final reading date in a few weeks. It HAD to sell. And it has. Thank you to everyone who has reviewed it, blogged about it, tweeted about it, recommended it, joined the Facebook group for it, booked me to talk about it, and otherwise help promote and sell it. I feel like I’ve got to the top of a mountain I’ve been climbing for three years.
One of the main reasons it has succeeded is the fantastic cover. And the next bit of good news is that the artist responsible for designing it has been commissioned to redo my previous two books. Man Walks into a Pub, now six years in print, has sold an extra 1500 copies this year, which is amazing, but every time I see its horrid sub-powerpoint clip-art cover I wince. In June 2010, the paperback release of H&G will be accompanied by new editions of MWIP and Three Sheets, and they’re going to look stunning as part of a set – my beer trilogy. It also gives me the opportunity to update the text of MWIP – bringing the final chapters on the state and prognosis of British beer and pubs up to date, quietly getting rid of some factual inaccuracies that have been pointed out to me, and deleting a few of the gags and footnotes that are trying a bit too hard. The question is… will I temper the scathing criticism of CAMRA that won the book its initial notoriety, now we’re on more friendly terms?
More good news: some good feedback on H&G from GABF – so North American readers may finally get to see the book after all without the seemingly controversial tactic of buying it from Canadian Amazon.
What next? I’m about to start work on a non-beer book. Feels a but weird but I want to spread my wings and try to achieve recognition as a ‘writer’ (whatever that is) rather than simply a beer writer. Before I get irate comments from beer bloggers, that’s not to dis beer writing or suggest it’s inferior to other forms of writing – it isn’t at all. But it does have a very narrow appeal in the book-purchasing world. I’ve been trying to change that as hard as anyone else who puts fingers to keyboard, if not harder, and I will continue to do so. But there are maybe three or four people on this planet who can make a decent living from writing about beer and nothing else, and I’m not one of them. I’ll continue beer blogging and journalism, and may even have two or three nebulous future beer/drinks ideas gathering traction in my addled head. But changes in personal circumstances mean I will soon be able to afford to write pretty much full time, and I now have to start thinking about all this in terms of career progression, skills development, broadening areas of expertise etc.
Next week (October 5th) sees the launch of the new Cask Report. It’s the third year I’ve written this, the definitive guide to Britain’s cask ale market, written independently with third party research, but paid for by a group of major regional brewers, CAMRA, SIBA, Cask Marque and Family Brewers of Britain. I’m better known for this now in the brewing world than I am for anything else. And there’s some major good news for anyone who loves cask beer, and important new findings for any publican thinking about stocking it.
I’ve got a load of catching up to do on this blog – I’ve spent most of the summer travelling, meeting people, being invited to brew, taste, and judge beer. I’ve been holding some of these pieces back because I’ve been trying to sell them to ‘old media’. I have totally failed in this respect and so will put them on here. I know blogging is ‘supposed’ to be a short-form medium, but I’ve got some longer, 1000-word features that I can’t place anywhere else and I don’t want to waste. If you strongly believe blog entries should only ever be short and sweet, I invite you to completely ignore them when they appear.
And I’ll post the first one just as soon as I get back from day two at Nantwich. Day one was a tough crowd – they didn’t warm to my opening gag about Brazilian prostitutes…