Tag: stoke newington

| Uncategorised

Beer and cider and music and books and food in North London

I don’t often do sponsor-heavy sales blurby posts, but this is is a special exception each year. Apologies if you can’t make it to North London next weekend…

It’s nearly here – the fifth Stoke Newington Literary Festival takes place all around N16 from 6th to 8th June – that’s in just over a week!

The festival is the creation of my wife Liz, and is organised by her, me, and a bunch of die-hard volunteers. It’s a charitable venture that aims to improve literacy in the Borough of Hackney. More than that, it’s about everyone enjoying ideas, debate, comedy, and brilliant words of all kinds. Last year Irvine Welsh – one of our headliners – described it as “The real London LitFest,”and Time Out said it’s “Like Hay-on-Wye, but in Hackney.”

With me involved, there’s always a strong boozy element – so here are the bits that might be of interest to readers of this blog.

Drinks Sponsors
We receive no formal funding for the festival, and we keep ticket prices lower than anywhere else we know to encourage the widest possible access. The support I blag from friends in the drinks industry to run bars at events is therefore what makes the festival viable. If you come, every beer or cider you buy helps a small child to read! Budweiser Budvar are our main sponsor, and last year they introduced the Budvar Marquee – a fantastic, informal bar space where we have a rolling, loose programme of authors, poets, comedians DJs and musicians chatting away while you enjoy a quality pint.

Local favourites the Bikini Beach Band are back to do another set:

and Phill Jupitus will be back with his mate poet Tim Wells to spin some platters that matter and do a bit of dad dancing for your edification. 
The marquee is outside Stoke Newington Town Hall and you don’t need a ticket for any of the festival events to soak up the buzz and free events. (You do have to pay for the booze though.)
Our other key drinks sponsors are Aspall, who very kindly provide us with top quality cider, and local brewer Redemption who have been with us from the start, supplying a specially brewed festival cask ale that’s light, hoppy, and perfect for what will hopefully be a lovely summer weekend. Talking of which… 

Name the Festival Beer!
Andy from Redemption is routinely declared the nicest man in brewing. And not just by us.

Each year he brews a special festival cask ale and donates it to us, and since year two of the festival we’ve run a competition to name the festival beer. It’s usually a dreadful pun on one of the acts or strands in the festival. Edgar Allen Poe lived in Stoke Newington, and the year we commemorated this we went for ‘Cask of the Red Death’. When Alexei Sayle headlined, ‘Alexei’s Ale’ was an obvious winner.

Get the idea?

OK, this year’s programme is more diverse and eclectic than ever before, but it does have a strong music strand running through it. Our closing headliner is Ray Davies. Yes, the real Ray Davies out of the Kinks! If you can think of a beery pun based around Waterloo Sunset, You Really Got Me, All Day And All The Night or any other of the songs this man wrote that changed the face of British music, let us know. We’ve also got Thurston Moore out of Sonic Youth, because he now lives locally (and drinks Guinness or locally brewed hoppy pale ales). We’ve got Viv Albertine out of The Slits. We’ve got Ben Watt out of Everything But The Girl. All talking about books about music. Or check out the rest of the programme and see if anyone else inspires. It doesn’t have to be a pun. It just usually turns out that way.

The winner gets free beers and entry to an event of their choice at the festival. Or just the satisfaction of knowing hundreds of people will be saying your pun as a bar call if you can’t make it along. Send entries to info@stokenewingtonliteraryfestival.com, marked ‘beer names’.

Beer and Music Matching – Sunday 8th, 7pm

I’ve been doing a lot about this recently, and my first event was at this festival two years ago. Now it’s back, bigger and better, with added neuroscience and real time experiments. Discover how your senses overlap and often deceive you. Learn how memory ‘primes’ your appreciation of flavour. And experience the Pavlovian brilliance of Duvel vs. the Pixies. Tickets available here, and the price includes a flight of outstanding beers. The event is on just before Ray Davies starts, in the venue just around the corner from his. Trust me, we will be finishing on time so I can get to see Ray too.

The Craft Cider Revolution – Saturday 7th, 4pm
As part of our food and drink strand, last year I hosted a panel discussion with local brewers. This year I thought I’d do the same with cider – but are there any local cider makers? Well, yes – London Glider make cider with apples foraged inside London – there are more of those than you thought, and the resulting cider is excellent. They’ll be joining me on stage along with the somewhat less local Andy Hallett of Hallet’s Cider, who will be bringing some of his brilliant ciders up from South Wales to try. (If you live locally but can’t make this event, don’t miss Andy’s Meet The Cider Maker this Saturday, May 31st at the Jolly Butchers). I’ll have some special stuff from our sponsors Aspall too. Tickets available here, and the price includes enough cider samples to give you a nice afternoon buzz.

The food and drink venue also has the legendary Claudia Roden being interviewed by Valentine Warner, Julian Baggini talking about the philosophy of food and drink, and the brilliant Gastrosalon – food confessions chaired by Radio 4’s Rachel McCormack.

It’s going to be our best festival yet. Please join us if you can.

| Uncategorised

Enterprise Inns: empowering publicans with cutting edge market information

A brief footnote to the sad story of one of my favourite locals, the Alma on Newington Green.

The Alma is now being offered up as a new tenancy, with applications closing this week. I was impressed by the level of detail on the website for prospective tenants – every aspect a curious publican might want to know about is covered. There’s even a guide to local competition – clearly a key factor in how the business might perform. So it’s great to see the website giving a run-down on what else is in the area so interested parties can accurately assess the opportunity:

Screen grab from Enterprise’s website about the Alma tenancy

There’s just one problem with this. No, actually, there are quite a few:

  • In 2011, the Nobody Inn was renamed the Clarendon. In 2012 it has a massive refit, substantially changing its offering, and was renamed the Dissenting Academy.
  • Bastille Brasserie closed down at least three years ago and is being converted to flats.
  • There’s no such pub as the Crafty Fox in the area. They might mean the Snooty Fox. But you can’t be too hard on them for getting the name of the pub wrong; it’s not as if they own it or anything. Oh, hang on – yes they do.
  • There’s no mention of the Hops & Glory (formerly the George Orwell) or the Leconfield (formerly the Oak Bar) – two craft beer pubs that offer significant competition to the Alma, each less than five minutes walk away. But you can’t be too hard on them for not knowing these pubs exist; it’s not as if they own them or anything. Oh, hang on – yes they do own the Leconfield. 
It’s great to see Enterprise’s local area manager having such a great grasp on the area he is paid to look after.

| Uncategorised

Beer and Booze at Stoke Newington Literary Festival 2013

When I’m busy writing a book my wife goes beyond the call of duty by looking after me, talking me down when I’m stressed, bringing me regular cups of tea and feeding me, telling me I’m a good writer when I am, and telling me I’ve written something awful on the far more frequent occasions when I’ve done that instead.

She’s brilliant.

And then, for the last four years, every May/June she effectively goes, “Right, now it’s my turn.”

The first full weekend in June is the Stoke Newington Literary Festival, widely hailed now as one of the best small scale book/reading festivals in the UK. This is her brainchild, and she organises it entirely voluntarily, for no fee and (so far) with no funding. A team of volunteers work their butts off to make it happen and it gets better every year, to the point where last year it looked to the outside world like it was professionally run.

I help out, doing the marketing and overseeing the festival bars. So if you’re anywhere around London between 3rd and 9th June, there’s no better place to come and do a bit of beer and brainfood matching.

The full programme is available to download here, and the main festival website with up to the minute details is at www.stokenewingtonliteraryfestival.com.

This year we’ve got our best line-up yet. Headliners include Irvine Welsh being interviewed by John Niven (almost sold out), Thurston Moore and friends playing an intimate local gig (sold out), Turkey’s most successful female author Elif Shafak, bookish comedians John Hegley and Robin Ince, Danny Baker chatting to Danny Kelly, Caitlin Moran talking to Suzanne Moore (sold out) and lots of politics, sci-fi, hot new fiction, music – and food and drink.

But never mind all that – on Friday 7th I’m going to be interviewing the fabulous Cleo Rocos!

The legendary Kenny Everett Show muse is now President of the Tequila Society, has her own tequila brand Aqua Riva, and has written a book called The Power of Positive Drinking. OK so she hardly mentions beer in it. But she does talk about the virtues of many other drinks, and will be telling stories about taking Princes Diana out drinking with Freddie Mercury, so that’s good enough for me.

On Saturday 8th I’m hosting various London brewers and beer writer Will Hawkes at an event called London’s Brewing, which you may be surprised to hear is an overview of the craft beer explosion in the capital over the last three or four years.

Will is the author of Craft Beer London, and we’ll be joined onstage by brewers from Sambrooks, Five Points, Beavertown and Pressure Drop, who will be bringing along their beers for everyone to taste while we muse over how brilliant London’s brewing scene is just now, and where it might go next.

Later that night, I’ll be happy to be a few drinks to the good as I rather trepidatiously become a contestant in Literary Death Match.

This irreverently bookish evening originated in the US, where it is now being made into a TV pilot, and has now gone global. It’s gaining an increasing reputation over here as a refreshing antidote for anyone who’s ever been bored of hearing an author droning on about form their book. Four authors compete for the love and affection of the audience and the judges, who score them on content, delivery, and ‘intangibles’. The two heat winners then go head to head in a a final that’s basically whatever the hosts can think of to stop the authors talking and make them look a little foolish.

If I survive that, I’ll be joining two excellent writers onstage on Sunday 9th to discuss London by Bridge, Tube and Pub.

At the same time as I was writing Shakespeare’s Local (which is released in paperback on 6th June) a neighbouring author, Travis Elborough, was crafting a book about the famous yarn of London Bridge being bought by an American millionaire and shipped to the States.

Often misunderstood and misquoted, the truth is often stranger than any exaggeration. Meanwhile, Mark Mason decided it would be a good idea to visit every station on the London Underground, not by taking the tube between them, but by tracing the lines above ground. 

It gave him a unique psychogeography of the city, and the three of us will be chatting to each other about the different ways London reveals itself, and competing to be the first to use words such as ‘psychogeography’.

When I’m not onstage I’ll probably be helping to run the bars. Every year a range of brewers and drinks makers kindly donate stock that we then sell. With no other arts or commercial funding of any description, this makes the festival financially viable and allows us to keep ticket prices lower than most other literary festivals.

One of our most enduring sponsors has been Budweiser Budvar, and for the first time this year they are sponsoring a marquee just outside Stoke Newington Town Hall, which will be the festival hub and home to various speakers, comedians and musicians throughout the main festival weekend. Budvar will also be available in the bars in our three main venues: the Town Hall itself, the Library Gallery, and Abney Hall.

It will be joined by a special festival beer from Tottenham’s Redemption Brewery, thanks to Andy Moffat, the nicest man in the world, as well as great ciders from Aspall, more beer (and award-wining English fizz) from Chapel Down and Curious Brew, and a smattering of Brew Dog beers. And some other wine and stuff.

We’ve found over the last few years that great writing is best appreciated and new ideas best communicated with a drink in hand. The festival ups the ante on all fronts this year – see you there.

| Uncategorised

Beer? Books? Classic Albums? Perfect Pubs? GIN?! It can only be Stokeylitfest

If you’re in North London, or fancy making the journey, you should wear your clever drinking boots on Jubilee Weekend.

The Stoke Newington Literary Festival is organised every year by my wife, and it takes place this year on 1st to 3rd June, and between stocking bars, introducing acts on stage, running to CostCo and directing volunteers, I’ll be doing a couple of events you might be interested in.

On Saturday 2nd June I’m teaming up with Robin Turner to talk perfect London pubs.  Robin is one of the co-authors of this excellent book, which you should definitely read, and not just because I’m in it:

I’ve often spoken about my huge admiration for The Moon Under Water by George Orwell, the best thing anyone has ever written about pubs.  Robin and his co-writer Paul Moody, who together run the excellent Caught by the River, travelled the country trying to find Orwell’s vision.  Yes, they looked in Wetherspoons, and they looked in many other places as well, including London.  As my new book is about a legendary London pub, the George in Southwark:

we thought we’d get together and chat about some Perfect London Pubs, and what makes them so.  We’ll be doing that over a beer upstairs in the White Hart (one of my perfect London pubs) on Saturday 2nd at 1pm.

The following day, I’ll be back in the same place for a beer and music matching event.  Last year I did beer and book matching and it went down pretty well, so I’ve moved it on this year.  I wrote ages ago about how scientists have proved that listening to particular styles of music can actually change the taste of what you’re drinking.  It’s called Cognitive Priming Theory, and means that particular combinations can create a greater overall sensory experience.  I’ve been mulling this over for a while, and in February I put it to the test with a feature in WORD magazine where I matched up ten beers with ten classic albums.

Duvel, for example, poured from the bottle into its tulip glass, is so feisty it tries to climb up the walls off the glass as if it’s trying to get out and claw your face off.  This is exactly the same experience as the opening chords of Debaser by the Pixies.  Put the two together and it’s wildly exhilarating.

Hopback Summer Lightning is too mellow to go with the Pixies and would jar slightly, but put it with Higher than the Sun of Slip Inside This House from Primal Scream’s Screamadelica, and you create a woozy, sun-kissed tip that takes you half way to Ibiza.  Brew Dog Abstrakt 08 with Public Enemy? Thornbridge Jaipur with the Stone Roses?  The possibilities are endless.  I’ll be choosing six at 1pm in the White Hart.

The link back to books from that one may be tenuous, but Stokeylitfest has always had a strong musical bent too, and this year we’ve also got Wilko Johnson, a retrospective on the NME with some of its most illustrious former hacks, a review of indie music, and loads more.  Check out the website for full details.

And that’s not the end of the booze.  Refreshed after my event (some beers will be included in the admission price) you may want to toddle along to the talk being hosted by festival sponsors Hendrick’s Gin.

They’re going to take us on a tour through the history of gin, and some of the legendary writers and characters it has inspired, with some free samples throughout.

With a unique festival beer brewed by Redemption, and other bar sponsors including Aspall’s and Budvar, we’ll be showing how brain food and booze are the perfect combination.

See you there.

| Uncategorised

Stoke Newington Literary Festival gets its own exclusive beers – got a name for them?

“Who cares how time advances? I am drinking ale today.“

Edgar Allan Poe (Former Stoke Newington resident)

Last year my wife Liz, AKA the redoubtable Beer Widow, created the first ever Stoke Newington Literary Festival.  Somehow, it worked, and it was a truly great event, so this year it’s happening again, from 3rd to 5th June.  The line up includes ex-Bond villain Steven Berkoff, Johann Hari, Alexei Sayle, Jon Ronson, Howard Marks, Matt Thorne, Dan Cruikshank, Stella Duffy, Rowland Rivron, BBC 6 Music’s Shaun Keaveny, and of course a nepotistic beer and book matching talk from me.  You can get more details and buy tickets for all events from here.
Like last year, I’ve been putting together ‘Pete’s Bar’ featuring a range of tastefully selected drinks donated by very wonderful sponsors including Budvar, Quilmes, Thornbridge and Hendrick’s gin.  But this year we also have two unique beers thanks to our local brewers.
Redemption Brewery in Tottenham, just up the road from the festival, has created and brewed a summer ale that will be sold in the festival’s own bars as well as at The Jolly Butchers, another collaborator on the project.  Meanwhile, Brodies in East London has created a seven-hopped spectacular to offer festivalgoers a choice of unique local brews.  These beers will only be sold in Stoke Newington during the festival.  Liz even went along and helped brew one of them, with Emma from JBs:
L-R: Nice Andy from Redemption, The Wife, Emma, Beer Queen of the Butchers, pretending to read book. Really drinking beer.
Today, we’re launching a competition to come up with a linked pair of names for these two sibling beers from different breweries – one light and refreshing, the other hoppier and bigger in flavour, both gorgeous, both perfect to accompany a summer’s weekend spent feeding your brain.
Andy at Redemption, James at Brodies, Emma at The Jolly Butchers and I will judge the names and award a host of beer and literature-inspired prizes, including 2 free tickets to my Beer & Book Matching event on Sunday 5th June, the chance to pull (and drink) the first few pints and signed copies of my Beer Trilogy: Man Walks into a Pub, Three Sheets to the Wind and Hops & Glory.
Suggestions should be sent to info@stokenewingtonliteraryfestival.com, @Stokeylitfest on Twitter, or via the festival’s Facebook page, where you can also receive updates about the festival and other beer sponsors. Competition closes 5pm on Friday 27th May.

| Uncategorised

The White Hart @StokeyLitFest

It’s taken me a week to recover from the Stoke Newington Literary Festival.  Four hours sleep a night for five days, phenomenal stress, unimaginable peaks of pride and delight.  Written up as ‘The new Hay’ by none other than The Times, we’ll be back bigger and better next year.

My events went well – both sold out.  In the flavour event we had a foodie crowd rather than a beer crowd, and doing a beer tasting caught them completely off-guard.  Otley O-Garden turned on thirty-odd people to beer, and the idea that you could taste beer properly, for the first time.  It’s a powerful weapon.  That event also earned me my first ever piece in The Times – a World XI of beers for the World Cup, which ran on Thursday but doesn’t seem to have made it to the online edition.

Me in our pubs talk

Then on Sunday we had the pubs event in the White Hart.  I got shivers running up and down my spine as I read Orwell’s Moon Under Water.  Tim Bradford proved he’s a beer writer struggling to get out from within a successful narrative non-fiction author when he read pub reviews from all three of his books, none of which is ostensibly about beer and pubs.  And Paul Ewen very kindly did a review of the pub we were sitting in, based on a visit a few weeks before.  It was a brilliant introduction to Paul’s surrealist style, and we talked afterwards about how the pub – with all its Man Walks into a Pub jokes – often demands a surrealist response in a way any other public space or retail establishment simply cannot.

Paul has very kindly given me permission to post his review below.  If you enjoy it, and if you like pubs, please buy his book from Amazon, right here.

The White Hart,
69 Stoke Newington High Street,
London N16 8EL
Nearest Train Station:  Dalston Kingsland
It was a glorious sunny afternoon as I made my way along Stoke Newington High Street, and the dazzling light reflected off the windows of passing cars, and from the spectacles of orthodox Jewish men. Some of the shops I passed were painted in bright and gay colours, to match the cheerful day, and I found my spirits lifted by their festive and perky tones. But the dark exterior of the White Hart pub was, in comparison, rather ominous and foreboding. It reminded me of an old scary house at the top of a windy hill, with bolts of lightning zig-zagging all about it. 
On one of the front windows was a paper sign. On the sign was an arrow and a message that read:
Following these directions to the appropriate entrance, I proceeded into the White Hart, as if entering a dark purple storm cloud, full to bursting.
It was raining inside. It was pelting it down. I was immediately struck by a flurry of hard wet drops, so raising my hands like a wig-wam above my eyes, I peered about in a search for dry shelter, but there was none. My hair and eyebrows were quickly drenched, and my mouth was like a plughole in a bath, surrounded by the wet wispy hairs of my silly little beard. Resigning myself to the elements, I ran like a person with a limp in both legs towards the large central bar, which lay just a short distance ahead, past some outlying tables and chairs. The barmaid was in good spirits despite everything, and the bucketing water gave her the distinct appearance of an Afghan Hound beneath the ocean.
A pool table to the right of the bar resembled a large birdbath, and a few young fellows were engaged in a match with the red and yellow balls, persevering atop the waterlogged felt. When a ball was struck, the sound it made resembled that of a plump duck landing on a pond. Next to the pool table was a large old fireplace, and this was stacked high with round logs of soggy firewood.
The rain water plop-plopped into my 3 pints of English ale, and when I raised one of these to my mouth, some of the drips ran off my nose and fell into my drink.
After leaving the bar with my ales, I found a square wooden table not far from the entrance door. Foolishly, I took out my handkerchief to give my chair a wipe, before realising my error as the rain beat about my head. To cover my embarrassment, I quickly hid my face behind the menu on the table, which the management had very sensibly chosen to laminate.
A large droplet-shaped light fitting made quite a show in the front bar, with many individual glass pieces sparkling in the heavy downpour. The bulbs and sockets were fizzing and sparking, and steady wisps of smoke were escaping from the fuses, but nobody seemed to mind. Making the best of the conditions, I tapped my flat soles on the watery floorboards, creating a loud ‘slapping’ noise. As I slapped away, I quietly sung along to a random tune that had formed within my head:
Every Sha-la-la-la
Every Wo-o-wo-o
Still shines
Every shing-a-ling-a-ling
That they’re startin’ to sing’s
So fine.
At an adjacent table, two large lads had been engaged in earnest conversation, and my singing had somehow managed to disturb them. Raising a wet hand, I took the opportunity to engage in conversation.
“What about this weather, ay?” I exclaimed.
“I was just saying, what about this weather, ay”?
The two men shook their heads and turned angrily back to their conversation. Feeling small, and a little bit stupid, I reached for my satchel and fumbled about inside for my pub review notebook. By huddling over the top of it, I thought I could spare the open pages from the torrential, pouring rain. But it was a thankless task, and the squiggly black ink soon resembled dangly goldfish poo, which is dragged around a bowl, like an advertising message behind a light aircraft.
The pint I had been drinking had quickly refilled with rainwater, and my other two drinks were also being diluted and watered down. It really was a ridiculous state of affairs. But there was no use fighting it. I was in England, and if there was one thing I knew, you had to roll with the weather. So instead, I laughed. I laughed aloud! I laughed aloud and said,
“Ah, heck!”
And then…I poured each pint over the top of my head, one after the other. There. As if it mattered!
Well, the bar manager of The White Hart came over very shortly after that, and I noticed his shirt was very crisp and very smart.
“Right”, he said. “You, out. Go on, out. And you can forget about coming back ‘cos you’re bloody barred.”
Outside, on Stoke Newington High Street, the sun continued to blaze. It was very bright and very hot, and as I trudged away, my sponge-like shoes left behind little squelchy puddles.

| Uncategorised

What’s so great about the Great British pub? Stokey Lit fest, Sunday 6th June

What’s so great about pubs?

We all know the answer to that one, of course. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have the discussion all over again.

Sunday afternoon will be the culmination of lots of threads. The Beer Widow decided to organise a literary festival when I was reading Hops and Glory at lots of them last summer, and we realized that of all the places that have LitFests, our local manor, Stoke Newington, should have one, because of its rich and multi-layered literary history (Stokey residents invented feminism, sci-fi, horror, even novels, if you allow yourself to go with the flow of local history).

When we agreed that she would go ahead with the idea, I always thought it would be nice to do an event in my local pub. The White Hart has a good function room upstairs that often hosts great comedy nights, and I launched Three Sheets to the Wind there.

But it would be wrong of me to simply do another lot of readings from my books, like I do at other literary festivals. I want to use the occasion, the fact that we’re organizing it, to do something different, creating an event that you won’t get anywhere else.

So we’ve taken the topic of pubs – of locals – and made something special out of it. Regular readers may have noticed that I’ve become increasingly fixated by Orwell’s essay, ‘The Moon Under Water’. 

Orwell with a tea cup.  I bet it’s got beer in it.
So I’m going to kick things off by reading that, instead of my own work. I think that one essay says more about pubs, more effectively, than I’ve been able to do in all the many thousands of words I’ve written about beer and pubs. I want to hold it up to the light, while we sit in the pub, and see if it’s still a useful yardstick to measure the perfect boozer.

Then Tim Bradford tells us what he loves about pubs. Tim is a writer in the vein of people like Stuart Maconie and Andrew Collins – fond memories of growing up, reflections on British culture, a story that works because although it’s personal, its shared by many of us. He’s written about growing up in smalltown England, and of course the pub is a vital component of that. 

As I’ve said before, it’s always interesting to hear someone who is not a beer writer talking about pubs – they spot things the rest of us sometimes miss. The Glasgow Herald says “He comes across as the kind of guy you’d love to have a drink or three with.” So that’s what we’re going to do.
Finally we have an absolute treat from Paul Ewen. If you like pubs, and you live in or around London, and you don’t own a copy of his London Pub Reviews, you’re even more insane than he is. 
They start off as any pub review does, but increasingly descend into surreal madness. I’ve always loved the pub partly because it gives licence to the irreverent, absurdist streak that runs through British culture. Paul is a Kiwi – this streak is foreign to him – but he’s fallen in love with it, warped it and presented it back to us in a way that makes it alien to us too, like a picture that’s run and blurred, a pub on an acid trip. 

I asked Paul if he would come and do one of his reviews on the White Hart, and he has done. Fuck knows what he’s written, what he thinks happened there. I have no idea what he’s going to say. But he will unveil this review during our event – a unique thing – we’ll be sitting in the pub he’s describing, in a review that has never been seen before. Trust me, it’ll be like no other pub review you’ve seen. Steven hall, author of the amazing The Raw Shark texts, says Paul is “A surrealist’s dream, a landlord’s nightmare!” I’m just worried we might get chucked out or even beaten up by the time he’s finished. 
Things will be eased along by free beer – Schiehallion and Bitter & Twisted – kindly donated by Harviestoun Brewery. Buy their beers. They really are rather wonderful. I’m not just saying that because they sponsored the event – I asked them to sponsor the event because of how much I love the beers.

The event kicks off at 3pm on Sunday and tickets are available – until 5pm today – from here, and after that at Stoke Newington Bookshop, the festival information and box office point at the library, and – if there’s any room left – on the door of the venue.

| Uncategorised

Eat Your Words on Saturday

The first of my two events at Stokey Lit Fest sees me face my biggest insecurity as a beer writer: tasting notes.

Writing tasting notes – describing the flavour of a beer – requires two separate skills: identifying flavours on your palate, and translating those flavours into text that conveys a sensory experience reasonably accurately in a way that will be meaningful to your reader.

Let’s take the first part first.  We’re all born with a certain number of flavour receptors in our mouths, and that number varies widely from person to person.  And like most people who prefer a hop bomb or Imperial stout over a perfectly balanced session beer, the simple truth is I’m a poor taster – I have fewer taste buds than average.  That’s why I also prefer hot curries and strong cheeses.  At the other end of the scale, ‘super tasters’ have loads of taste buds, and can find the hop bomb I love almost physically painful.  As I tell people in all my tastings, it doesn’t mean they’re a wuss – it means they have a far more delicate and effective palate than I do.

I’ve compensated for this by doing a lot of flavour training, and if I work hard I can usually nail subtleties of flavour.  But in every session I do, there’s always someone who just gets it, with what seems to me to be an almost supernatural gift.

Then there’s the second part – conveying meaningfully what’s going on in your mouth.  At a tasting session, this is where a good dose of auto-suggestion helps.  The novice will often sit there struggling, saying “I like it, but it just tastes like beer.” It’s only when you say, “Anyone getting a hint of citrus sweetness there, a taste of grapefruit perhaps?” that the lights start to go on.

I’m better at the language part of the tasting equation than the flavour identification part.  Once I have my building blocks laid out I can relax, because I know I can put them together in a readable and original way.  But my facility with language makes me think often about how we do this.

Many readers of this blog will already know this, but while we use the words ‘flavour’ and ‘taste’ interchangeably – I still do in everyday speech – they’re quite different.  Taste is a subset of flavour.  Taste is detected by the tongue, which can identify four or five basic tastes: sweet, bitter, sour/acidic, salty and, if you believe in it, umame (savoury – think soy sauce).  But our noses and nasal cavities are full of flavour receptors.  Aroma is a huge part of the total flavour equation.

So how do we describe flavour?  Bitter, sweet, salty, sour and savoury are pretty much the only words that truly describe taste.  Period.  But we write such florid flavour descriptions – so how do we do it?

Brewers or beer judges have a technical language that’s useful for scientifically pinpointing flavours that should or shouldn’t be there, but is useless to the average reader – estery, phenolic, diacetyl.

The unimaginative or lazy writer will default to describing the ingredients: it’s malty, it’s hoppy, it’s got a hint of Bret (Brettanomyces, or wild yeast).

How do we make it more interesting and evocative?  We enter the field of comparison, and board the raft of tasting knowledge.

Let’s say you want to expand on ‘hoppy’ for someone who has no idea what that means. (I was working around beer for about three years before I knew what ‘hoppy’ meant.  “This beer is really hoppy.” “Is it? How?  Why?  What is it in this glass that you’re referring to when you say that?”)

You might start with, “Hops give beer it’s aroma.  What you’re smelling when you smell beer is mainly hops.”

“Oh yeah?” comes the reply, “Well it JUST. SMELLS. LIKE. BEER. Help me out here!”

So we’ll start using words like citrusy, or grassy, or spicy.  That’s fine if someone knows what those things are, and tasting notes work because the vast majority of us do, and have a reasonable level of agreement on what those things taste or smell like.  But what if we didn’t?

“What do you mean, citrusy?”

“Well, can you detect that hint of grapefruit?”

“Dunno, what’s grapefruit taste/smell like?”

“Well, a bit like a lemon, only less sour, kind of like a cross between a lemon and an orange.”

“What’s an orange taste like?”

Can you answer that last question?  What does an orange taste like?  Orangey? Sweet? Citrussy?  In language terms, you’re back where we started.

My belief is that the actual words don’t exist, and you have to rely on constructions of language, a level of artistry rather than simple description, to accurately convey a ‘mood’ of the flavour.  But then you run the risk of becoming pretentious and alienating the very novice you’re seeking to attract.

It’s not easy.

These are questions that face anyone who writes about any food or drink.  And at my Eat Your Words session, I’m joined by three other writers for a unique event to discuss the issue.

Niki Segnit is a great friend of mine and regular reader of this blog (Hello Niki!)  This month she releases a book she’s been working on, in one form or another (it wasn’t always going to be this book) for the best part of a decade.

The Flavour Thesaurus is a stunning work – both to look at and to read.  Heston Blumenthal has already declared it “original and inspiring”.  Niki has taken 99 ingredients, and has for each one analysed what the flavour is, and worked out which other ingredients it best pairs with.  The result is a book that can help anyone who follows recipes and knows what they’re doing in the kitchen start to think in terms of flavour combinations, and ultimately cook without recipes.  Chocolate and tomato? Pork and rhubarb?  Beef and lemon?  This shows you why, and how.  Niki’s going to be kicking things off with what she learned about the whole taste and flavour thing.

Then we’ve got Ian Kelly, who among many other things (including being Hermione’s dad in the Harry Potter films) is an historical biographer.  He’s written about Careme, the first ‘celebrity chef’, who cooked for people like Napoleon and George III, and also about Casanova – who, it turns out, had a day job as a food writer, and – being him – was very into the whole sensuousness of food and drink.

Ian will look at how people used to write about taste and flavour, and we’ll be discussing how first Victorian prudishness and then years of war and austerity stopped us from appreciating flavour, and how we’re now just starting to learn how to write about it with gusto again.

Our final speaker is a perfect example of this – Elisa Beynon was an unpublished writer when she entered a Waitrose Food Illustrated competition in 2007, and won it with “enthusiasm, warmth and gentle humour” and “a truly original voice” according to judge Nigel Slater.

She’s now published The Vicar’s Wife’s Cookbook, and after giving a cookery demo in Stoke Newington Farmers’ Market with organic ingredients from the market, she’ll be joining our panel to talk about how she has tackled writing about flavour in a way that’s seen her cut in to a very overcrowded market and establish a niche for herself amid endless celebrity chefs.

Our session is at the White Hart, Stoke Newington High Street, this Saturday 5th June, at 2pm.  Tickets are £4, £3 concessions.  We’ll have samples of beer and chocolate to help the discussion along.  Hope to see you there!

| Uncategorised

Books and that

It was a proud day for me yesterday when I found out these had arrived in the warehouse:

The paperback release of Hops and Glory is joined by re-releases of the other too, both with new covers from Neil Gower, the wonderful artist who broke the mould with the Hops and Glory design last year.
As far as text goes, H&G and Three Sheets are unaltered, but Man Walks into a Pub has been extensively rewritten and updated.  I’ll talk more about that in a few weeks – they’re officially released on June 4th.
But anyone living in the North West who wants a copy can be the very first people to get their hands on one!  I’m doing an event at the Southport Food and Drink Festival this Saturday.  Scarisbrick Hotel, Southport, 2pm, I’ll be doing a group tasting of some of the beers from the festival, and trying out a new talk about beer and my adventures through it, drawing from all three books.  I’ll be announcing more festival dates throughout the summer once I’ve got this talk right, but I will have the new books to sell as a special sneak preview.
In other literary news, fans of The Beer Widow may have noticed that she’s been a bit quiet of late.  That’s because she’s organising the first ever Stoke Newington Literary Festival, June 4th-6th, bringing the stars of the literary firmament to our corner of North East London (actually, a lot of them already live here, hence the idea for the event.  
I’m doing two events, each of which will be a little different for me:

Saturday, 2pm: “Eat Your Words”: Niki Segnit, Pete Brown, Alex Rushmer and Ian Kelly
The White Hart

There are only a handful of words that really describe taste and flavour, but collectively we have a seemingly limitless appetite for reading and writing about food and drink.  The author of The Flavour Thesaurus, Britain’s leading beer writer, a Masterchef finalist and the biographer of Anton Careme, the world’s first celebrity chef, discuss their struggle to pin flavour to the page.
Sunday, 3pm: “What’s so great about the Great British Pub?” Pete Brown, Paul Ewen and Tim Bradford
The White Hart
£4 (with free beer)

Beer Writer of the Year Pete Brown hosts an event in his local, The White Hart, getting the beers in and talking to one-man ‘Campaign for Surreal Ale’ Paul Ewen, and local writer and chronicler of small town England Tim Bradford, about what makes the pub such a unique and enduring cornerstone of British culture.  
Very excited about these – My mate Niki has written something that will be essential for anyone who enjoys cooking and wants to move beyond just following recipes, it’ll be cool to meet ‘Food Blogger Alex‘ from this year’s Masterchef, and Ian’s biographies look interesting.  The following day I’m fascinated to see what Paul Ewen is really like after enjoying his book a while back (I reviewed it here) and you’ve got to fall in love with Tim Bradford when you read the Amazon review he got from his mum!  Tickets should be available any second now from here, but in the meantime can be booked by phone (details on the festival website) or bought from the Stoke Newington Bookshop.  
We all take our place well down the running order behind people like Shappi Khorsandi, Phill Jupitus, Danny Kelly, John Hegley, Jeremy Hardy, AC Grayling, Stewart Lee and the legendary Tony Benn.  Come and make a weekend of it!  It promises to be fantastic.  
Check out the festival website for more details on the bill and how to book tickets, and follow @StokeyLitFest on Twitter and on Facebook for up to date news about the line up etc.  Liz has never organised anything like this before and the literary community is amazed at the quality of the line-up she’s managed to pull together for the first year.  But she’s having sleepless nights about the whole thing, so please buy tickets for stuff!