Tag: Three Sheets

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“Shakespeare’s Pub” – and my other books – now available in America

Good morning America!

Over the years I’ve been asked by many North American readers of this blog if my books are available in the United States. As of now, they all are!

Today the first ever US-bespoke edition of one of my books is published. My last book, Shakespeare’s Local, hits American shelves today as Shakespeare’s Pub: A Barstool History of London As Seen Through the Windows of Its Oldest Pub – The George Inn. (I’ve noticed on my trips to the States that you guys LOVE a long subtitle).

It’s published by St Martin’s Press, the US partner of my UK publisher, Pan Macmillan, and there’s a bit more information about them and the book on their website, along with a really quite lovely gallery of the photos and illustrations used in the book.

The thing about your long subtitles is that it kind of tells you everything you need to know about the book (there’s actually a riff in Shakespeare’s Pub about the Stuart-era fashion for even longer subtitles and their similarity to those movie trailers that give away the whole plot.) But I’ll elaborate a little for those who don’t know.

The pub has been hailed as ‘the primordial cell of British life’. For centuries, pubs have provided the glue that holds communities together. They are more than shops that sell drink, different from bars in that people feel a greater sense of ownership and belonging than in any other commercial establishment.

Today the great British pub ranks second or third in any survey of what visitors from abroad wish to experience when the go to the UK. And yet the pub is in crisis, with an average of 26 closing their doors for good every single week.

Against this backdrop, I wanted to tell the story of ‘one pub and everyone who has ever drank in it’, and the George emerged as the best candidate thanks to its unique combination of survival and location. There were perhaps more significant pubs historically, but they are no longer with us. And there are older pubs, but one reason they have survived is that they are tucked away in corners of the country where nothing much happens – meaning there is a less interesting story to tell.

The story of the George involves the three leading lights of English literature – not just Shakespeare, but also Chaucer and Dickens. The latter was definitely a regular at the George, but I have to warn readers that there is no firm documentary evidence that either Chaucer or Shakespeare definitely drank in the George. In Shakespeare’s case that’s because there’s hardly any documentary evidence of him doing anything at all. But circumstantial evidence that he drank in the George is very strong indeed.

As well as these guys, the story involves a wide-ranging cast of villains, prostitutes, beggars, thieves, merchants, brewers, highwaymen, prime ministers and royalty – making the George the perfect case study of the democracy and inclusiveness of the pub – qualities that make any obituary for pubs very premature indeed.

Shakespeare’s Local been my most successful book launch in the UK to date, having been serialised on BBC Radio 4 and included in several ‘best picks’ of books of 2012. It’s a book about pubs, but it’s my least beery book so far – it’s much more about broader social history, and aims to please a broader audience.

(Note to UK readers: the only things that have changed for the American edition are the cover and title and, I guess, maybe some Americanized spellings. In any and all other respects this is the same book as Shakespeare’s Local).

My previous books were way more beery. Last time I looked, aged ago, they were not available anywhere in the US, but I’m delighted to discover that all three are now listed on amazon.com at non-import prices, in paperback and kindle editions. For anyone not familiar with them, here is a brief recap:

My first book looks at the history of beer (and pubs) mainly from a UK perspective.  It’s still my bestselling book overall as it keeps up steady business as an easy, accessible, general introduction to the world of beer. If you’re a beer geek looking for something more thorough and rigorous, track down anything by Martyn Cornell, or check out the Oxford Companion to Beer. What I tried to do here is discuss beer with both the irreverence and respect it deserves, offering entertainment as well as education to anyone who enjoys a good beer, but still packing in enough historical fact and trivia so that even the most knowledgeable beer geek might find something knew not just about beer, but the context it sat in, why it was there and how important it was, and still remains. This edition was updated in 2010. When people ask me which of my books is best, I tell them this is the most popular.

Breaking out of my UK perspective, for my second book I went on a world tour of important beer drinking nations. At a time when the idea of ‘craft beer’ was really happening in the US but wasn’t that well known in the UK, I compared different brewing traditions, beer styles and ways of drinking, from Europe to the US, from Portland to Prague, from Milwaukee to Melbourne, Australia, including Paddys’ Day in Ireland, Oktoberfest in Munich, and around 500 bars across thirteen countries. When people ask me which is my best book, I tell them this is the funniest.

India Pale Ale is the flagbearer of the craft beer movement, the most popular beer style among beer geeks and brewers. Everyone involved in that scene knows the legend of the beer brewed to be shipped to British garrisons in India, and the supposed transformation it underwent on the voyage. But no one knew what really happened. My third book charts my attempt to take a cask of traditionally brewed IPA from Burton-on-Trent to Calcutta by its traditional sea route around the Cape of Good Hope for the first time in 140 years. It cuts between the most detailed history of IPA there is, and my own journey on a variety of vessels. It didn’t quite go according to plan. When people ask me which is my best book, I tell them this is the best-written.

So that’s how I spent the last ten years of my life. I’m very proud to have all four books now on sale in the US and I hope American readers can cope with the slang and English vernacular* and enjoy them as much as my British readers.

Cheers, America!

*And the irritating over-reliance on footnotes. 

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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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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!

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The Day after Paddy’s Day

Unbelievably, it’s six years since I was in Dublin for Paddy’s Day, at the start of my research for what became Three Sheets to the Wind. Which means it’s six years today that I had the scariest and most surreal cab journey of my life.

I wrote about it but it didn’t make it into the final book. It’s not really beer related as such, but it’s been sitting there in a folder for six years so I thought I might as well share it!
The story so far: I was in Ireland for a few days being a really crap traveller, utterly out of my depth. Liz joined me and we had a great Paddy’s Day, but I didn’t really get what I needed for the Irish chapter of the book – which meant that I would return a few months later and visit Galway. Somewhat downhearted, we hailed a cab to take us back to the airport, for our flight back to London…
Liz is unusually quiet and reflective on the way to the airport, in that we’re almost twenty seconds into the journey before she tells the cab driver that we’ve been here because I’m writing a book about beer. She gets a lot more than she bargained for in response. The driver turns around fully in his seat, away from the busy junction we’re rolling towards, to tell us that we are very, very welcome here. “That’s great. That’s really great. I’ve an idea for a book. Would you like to hear it?” Of course, we nod and say we would love to. He then spends the entire journey telling us how his sister had a relationship with a man from Eastern Europe who turned out to be a murderous thug. They went to live in Sweden, where the thug worked for a man who imported gold bullion. The thug’s job was to follow the people who bought the bullion back to their houses, kill them and take the gold back. Eventually, criminal mastermind and hired muscle had a falling out over the absurdly high bodycount their business was creating. Hired gun murdered mastermind, along with all his family, just to be on the safe side – except one son got away. This man then turned up at a wedding and massacred the hired gun and all his family, all except our cabbie’s sister, who was somehow spared. She took the hint and fled to South Africa, where she remains, too terrified to come back to Europe. But she took something valuable with her: the location of the spot where all the dodgy gold bullion had been buried, in a cemetery on the outskirts of Stockholm. She kept quiet about it for years, but when her brother, our cabbie, lost the multi-million pound fortune he had built up from property and ended up having to drive cabs, she told him the full story. He is now splitting his time between driving cabs in Dublin, and visiting Stockholm cemeteries to look for buried gold bullion and krugerrands. He has a man there doing research for him, and all our cab fares are going to pay for this man’s services. However, the trail seems to have gone suspiciously cold, so perhaps this contact is trying to claim the loot for himself. Our cabbie may have to go over to Stockholm again and, er, take care of him. He turns around to face us again, leaning over into the back of the car, his face close to ours, while doing seventy on the motorway. “D’ye think that might make a good book now?” I tell him that it would make a fantastic book and he must write it. I give him plenty of advice on how to get an agent and a publisher. Because the alternative is to tell him that he is mad, and I don’t want to do that, especially while he’s driving. I’d like to ask him, if he’s close to finding these missing millions, why he would want to blow it by writing the book and revealing the secret. He obviously believes his own story. The distressing thing is, it has so much detail and so many quirks of individuality I feel pretty sure there are shreds of truth in it somewhere. As I’m thinking this, he forgets about controlling the car altogether, reaches under his seat and brings out a 700-page pictorial guide to graveyards around Stockholm, starts showing us various pictures, asking us if we can read Swedish because he needs help with some of the passages. I want to scream so badly. I don’t recognise the road we’re on – I’m positive we’re not heading back to the airport the way I came in. We’re on a new motorway that’s still being built, and for the first time in my life, I visualise my own death. I know I’m going to be hacked up with a spade and buried in bin bags under a flyover. Then we’re at the airport. We leap out and get our bags. With my mouth I beg the driver to buy the Writer’s Handbook. With my eyes, I beg him not to kill us. We sprint through passport control, only relaxing when the plane finally pulls away from the gate and he isn’t on it.

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You’ve lost that Leuven feeling

Just got back from my first trip to Belgium for about three or four years, and my first time at the Brussels beer festival. Trying to sell a piece to the papers about the event itself so I may have to keep my powder dry on that for now, but one or two other observations cropped up on the side.

The first is my former love, Stella Artois. For new readers to this blog, Stella was my intro to the beer world – I worked on it in a marketing capacity ten years ago, when it was a hoppy, characterful pilsner lager with great advertising, a premium brand image, and only a small number of people referring to it as ‘wifebeater’. It’s responsible for my entire beer career. But times have changed, and about a year ago I was really laying into Stella about the compromises it’s made.
Back in the day, people used to insist that “proper Belgian Stella” was far superior to the UK version, brewed under licence by what was then Whitbread. UK Stella is still brewed in the UK, but both it and Belgian Stella are both owned by what is now AB-Inbev, the world’s largest brewing conglomerate. It breaks my heart that UK Stella has deteriorated so much, it’s joined the very short list of beers that I can’t actually drink. I’d have wine if it was the only beer available in a bar. So what about Belgian Stella?
Here’s what I wrote about it in Three Sheets to the Wind, on my first ever trip to Belgium in 2004, tasted in a cafe in Leuven, where it’s brewed:
I feel a little nervous, like meeting up with a former lover I haven’t seen for some time. The beer arrives in a curvaceous, tulip-shaped goblet. It has the most beautiful golden colour, served with a full inch of foamy head. It looks perfect. There’s a light aroma suggestive of summer fields, and the taste is perfectly balanced – satisfyingly malty and wonderfully bitter.
In 2009, Stella looks pale and watery, with very little head, which disappears instantly. There’s no discernible aroma whatsoever. It tastes thin. It tastes of corn syrup, with a nasty metallic alcohol tint. There is no discernible hop bitterness or character. It tastes like a beer that has been lagered for a mere day, rather than the four weeks it once was, or even the week that’s now standard among mass-market, industrially produced lagers. Most distressingly – for what used to be a premium brand – it tastes cheap. In other words, it’s no different now from UK Stella.
I don’t think it ever was different from UK Stella. In both countries, it used to be good, and has now been stripped, hollowed out.
What I find baffling about this is that AB-Inbev also brew Jupiler. I tried a glass of that and it had a thick, foamy head, a nice hop grassiness and a lovely smooth, creamy mouthfeel. In the UK, where you see Stella on the bar you’re likely to also see Becks Vier, because Ab-Inbev brew that too. There aren’t many occasions when I’d choose Becks Vier over other beers, but if you drink it side by side with Stella, this 4% lager has more beer character than Stella at 5%. Like all global brewers, AB-Inbev knows perfectly well how to brew great-tasting lagers. It simply chooses not to where Stella is concerned.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a wholesale degradation of a perfectly nice beer.

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Beer, Politics and World Peace

Headline in today’s paper:

The story: a cop arrested a black professor and has been accused of acting in a racist manner. Obama was critical, saying the cop had “acted stupidly”, and this has led to a cranking up of racial tension.  Obama, recognising that this is turning into a bigger row and that his own comments have helped inflame the situation, now wants to defuse that tension.  And how does he do that?  He invites the cop in question, and the guy he arrested, for a beer at the White House.
Not a cup of tea.  Not a coffee.  Not a glass of wine.  A BEER.
This seems kind of an obvious post for me to make, given that I’ve written books on the subject, but in an age where beer in headlines usually only means binge drinking, violence and alcoholism, this is a story that needs to be screamed from the rooftops till every hysteric in the media finally gets it.
Why would Obama invite both men for “a beer here in the White House” rather than simply invite them to get round a table and discuss it without stipulating what refreshments were on offer?  We all know why.  But I’ll spell it out anyway.
Because beer is the most sociable drink in the world.
Because in every single culture where beer is drunk, to invite someone to share a beer with you is not just politeness; it symbolises an offer of friendship.  It’s a clear statement that when you meet, this will not be a formal negotiation or dressing down, but a more relaxed meeting of equals.  By inviting them for a beer, rather than a meeting, Obama is saying that he will not be their president when they meet – he will be one of three guys who need to clear the air.  He’s acknowledging that if they accept this particular invitation, these guys will be attending in a spirit of reconciliation.  Because only the biggest dick in the world would accept a beer from someone and then behave in an antagonistic manner as they sit drinking together.
The social codes around beer are universal, and as old as civilisation itself.  They remain largely unspoken, even though they are commonly understood.  But for years we’ve allowed beer’s unique magic to be eroded on all sides – it’s been demonised by neo-prohibitionists and health freaks, commoditised by retailers and by global brewers who describe themselves ‘not as brewers, but as FMCG marketing companies that just happen to sell beer’*, moronised by a small minority of boors, scorned by snobs who think you have to drink wine to be admired in shallow, materialistic, brand-obsessed society, and made impenetrable by another minority of deluded snobs who believe the best way to revive beer is to steal wine’s most pretentious clothes and mannerisms.
Now the most powerful man in the world has reminded us what it’s really all about.
I hope the guys accept Obama’s invitation.  I don’t give a damn whether he serves them Bud Light or Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA, Corona or Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout.  In one sentence, he’s said everything I tried to say in Three Sheets to the Wind, and said it with a gazillion times more impact.
So raise a glass to Barack Obama – president, heir to Mr Miyagi, and now Global Beer Drinker of the Year 2009.
ps – Our old friends at the BBC – more enthusiastic than most about linking beer to anything negative – have managed to report the story without even mentioning Obama’s offer of beer – thereby missing the entire point of his invitation.
*Here I’m paraphrasing comments made by the president of AB-Inbev UK last year – a guy I actually used to work with.  I’d been meaning to invite him out to responsibly consume some FMCG units with me in a business-to-consumer interface location till I read this.

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Three Sheets to the Wind and the deleted scene

I’ve just finished a first read-through of the first half of the new book, which has involved slashing lots of stuff out because I write too long. It reminded me of last time I did this, two and a half years ago. I had to cut about 40,000 words from the first draft of Three Sheets, and some good stuff ended up on the cutting room floor. I fought to keep the following scene in because it’s one of my favourites, but I lost. It makes me laugh whenever I think of it, and I hope it raises a smile for you too. I’m just east of Greenwich Village, New York. It’s late afternoon during a long day of pub crawling, when I still have a couple of hours to kill before meeting Garret Oliver for the first time…

An hour later, walking again when the rain has slackened fractionally, I spot a bar painted all black outside, with red curtains pulled closed across the windows. Through the door, all I can see is a dull red glow. The smell of a university gig venue wafts out.

A stag’s head perches above the bar, almost hidden under a collection of lacy red, black and pink bras draped from its antlers. A sign taped on the mirror behind the bar reads, “Do not touch the bartenders.”

I order a Sam Adams. The guy leaning on the bar next to me, bulging T-shirt and wispy ponytail, snorts with derision when I speak. All the guys perched at the bar are drinking bottles of Bud, apart from one who is nursing a Pabst Blue Ribbon. I didn’t think they even made this stuff any more. I find out later that there is a growing market for ‘relic beers’, the brands that disappeared in the Beer Wars. Now brewed under licence as budget brands, they sell for nostalgic reasons, but also benefit from the protest against globalisation and saturation marketing. In Portland’s one anarchist bar Pabst outsells Miller Lite.

Something tells me that my friend here is not drinking it to demonstrate solidarity with the anti-capitalists. I’m at the corner of the bar, and the guy who sneered at my Sam Adams is talking across me to another guy whose arms are covered in tattoos. “Yeah, when I was doin’ time, I used to do a lot of painting. Guys would come up to me all the time and ask me to do tattoos. The whole thing – they had the needles and ink ready to go. I’m like, no, no, I don’t work on skin. But they just kept on and on.” He shakes his head and takes a long pull from his bottle.

“So… did you do ‘em?” asks the tattooed guy.

“Well, no. I told you, I don’t work on skin.”


They go back to contemplating their beers in silence.

I become acutely aware that I’m carrying a Saks Fifth Avenue bag. This is only because I always buy underwear whenever I come to New York because it’s half the price it is at home, but these guys don’t know that, and my poncey craft beer has just arrived (in a Bud Light glass, admittedly – maybe the barmaid is trying to protect me.) Suddenly, with overwhelming certainty, I realise I am Niles Crane.

There’s one vacant stool at the bar, between the Sam-Adams-hating Prison Artist and the – really rather large – tattooed man. I decide to head for a table instead. This means I stand no chance of being able to strike up a conversation, but maybe that’s for the best.

I can choose between two tables: one right by the exit, the other by the jukebox. The only other seating in the place is a long bench running around two walls. A pool table dominates the centre of the room, a Galaxian video game and a pinball machine the remaining wall. I take the jukebox table, to prove (to myself) that I’m not totally chicken.

Someone has scrawled above the juke box in pink chalk, “Play 4202 and Jamie will dance.” I wonder if Jamie is the barmaid on duty. She looks like she might dance, if the music was suitably industrial: tall, stick-thin, dressed head-to-toe in black with lace, rips and piercings throughout. Or maybe Jamie is a boy’s name. He might be one of my new friends at the bar.

A couple of guys go outside for a fag (sorry, I really should say ‘cigarette’ while we’re in here). Even here the no smoking rule is observed. They come back in, and now the barmaid goes out. Then the guys all follow her back out to chat to her while she smokes. Suddenly I’m entirely alone in the bar, with a big bunch of guys outside blocking the exit.

The bar is called 2 by 4 because it’s on the corner of 2nd Street at 4th Avenue. (You can visit next time you’re in town). But now the name suggests a piece of two-by-four; a hefty chunk of wood, such as you might use to beat someone to death. Once you’ve broken all the pool cues.

Perhaps now I could go and check out what 4202 is, but I really, really don’t want them to think I’m about to put on some music in their pub. I waver too long, and they drift back in. My exit clear, I dart out and head west, carrying my Saks bag low.

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I hope you won’t think of me as a vulgar, shameless self-publicist but LOOK AT THIS!!!!

Have you ever seen a better Father’s Day present IN YOUR LIFE?!

The mass-market paperback edition of Three Sheets is in shops now, with a much more direct, does-what-it-says-on-the-tin cover.

Encouragingly, it’s on promotion in Borders and Books Etc. People sometimes ask if being involved in Three for the price of two or Buy one get one half price deals is a good thing or not. It is. I get the same pittance as my share whatever price the book sells at, and the fact that they’re putting it out on tables and promoting it means they are putting marketing support behind it, not ignoring it. They can pick and choose what books they feature, so it’s a real result to get that kind of visibility in-store.

And there are some great quotes on the back cover:

“Carlsberg don’t publish books. But if they did, they would probably come up with Three Sheets to the Wind.” – Metro

“The story of the armless drinker in Galway is worth the price of the book alone.” – Express

“A well-intentioned, good-humoured, flush-faced kind of book, which grabs you firmly by the coat lapels and will not let you go until they’ve regaled you with one more hilarious story” – Guardian

“The strength of Brown’s breezy, informed book is showing how beer reflects national culture rather than defines it” – Financial Times

You know you want it…