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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

What's new?

What's new?
New events added including Stoke Newington Literary Festival
I had a big piece in the Guardian this week about why publicans are unhappy
Click here to hear me talking about craft beer on this week's radio 4 Food Programme!
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Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Alliterative Book Review: Boak and Bailey's 'Brew Britannia'

Imagine if the history of rock music was done in the style of beer writing:

“Unknown Pleasures by Joy Division was recorded at Strawberry Studios, Stockport, between 1st and 17th April 1979. It is 39 minutes and 24 seconds long and consists of ten songs, which contain drums, bass, guitar, synthesisers and vocals, with added special effects.”

There would then be an online debate about whether or not the use of synthesisers meant that the record was ‘real indie’ or not, segueing into a huge disagreement about whether the album should best be described as ‘indie’ or ‘goth’, or perhaps neither as, being completely original and ground-breaking, it was in fact ‘not to style’.

I thought about this when reading How Soon is Now? – a definitive history of indie music by Richard King. Read a biography of a band, or a sweeping review such as King’s that seeks to contextualise and explain a musical movement, and it’s not about what instruments they played or how big the studio was: it’s about the people, how they were influenced previous bands, other artistic forms or just what was in their air at the time, and how music made them and their fans feel.


‘Wouldn’t it be brilliant if someone wrote a history of craft/good beer following the conventions of music journalism rather than beer writing?’ I thought. ‘Not writing so much about cascade hops and the structure of the industry, but more broadly about the trends and most of all the people, the decisions and sacrifices they made, the chances they took, the ideas and creativity that drove them. That would be a good book. I should give that a go.”

Of course, I never did. Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey did it instead. Sort of.

Boak and Bailey are two of my favourite beer bloggers. I love their combination of obvious passion and clear reason. Occasionally their blog posts can be a little too po-faced and navel-gazing, but their air of slight detachment means they usually end up calling things right much more often than most other bloggers, this writer included.


Their first book, Brew Britannia (Aurum Press, £12.99) seeks to explain ‘the strange rebirth of British beer’ from the 1960s to the present day. While I’d quibble over the adjective ‘strange’ (interest in beer has mirrored – and mostly followed – a similar rediscovery of flavour, tradition and experimentation across many food and drink categories) it’s a smart approach. Many beer history books (my own included) take the long view and deal only briefly with the modern period. Whereas that idea of writing a history of craft beer would probably have started around the early 2000s, would have been much too ‘of its time’ and would have dated badly.

What we have here instead is a story of beer gradually becoming something worth caring about, something to be appreciated – at first by retired World War Two officers looking for an excuse for a piss-up, through the foundation of CAMRA to the discovery of new ideas in beer, the growth of the brewpub and the microbrewery, and finally, yes, the modern craft beer phenomenon, in all its wonderful, frustrating, murky glory.

Anyone who follows B&B’s conjoined Twitter account will be aware of how many months of painstaking research went into this book. It seems as though they’ve read every old issue of What’s Brewing, tracked down every living person who has ever brewed beer on a small scale in the last fifty years, as well as the surviving families of those who are no longer with us, and then cross-referenced everything, caveating any claim they were not able to wholly substantiate. In an age where some observers obsess over tiny details rather than seeing the big picture, the working here is meticulous.

But the big picture is there too. I knew that in its early days, CAMRA had a fresher approach than the strict orthodoxy that binds it today. But I had no idea that the founders didn’t even know what cask beer was until the campaign had all ready formed with a semi-serious purpose to revitalise ‘ale’, a word chosen simply because ‘it seemed solidly Northern and down to earth – less pretentious… than beer’.

And modern ideas of ‘craft’ have much earlier roots than I ever realised. I was aware that Sean Franklin, was using cascade hops at Rooster’s last century, but had no idea that his craft – and that of others – went back to the early eighties. Or that the current arguments between big brewers and microbrewers have been raging in one form or another since the mid-1970s.

Sometimes the formal tone becomes a little stilted – the insistence on putting anything from ‘real ale’ and ‘world beer’ to ‘greasy spoon’, ‘foodie’ and even ‘tasting’ in ‘inverted commas’ often jars and occasionally evokes those high court judges who need to ask someone to explain what this ‘rap music’ is that the ‘youngsters’ are listening to.

But on the whole, the approach works. You need a steady hand on the tiller when trying to unpick the various internecine squabbles and Judean People’s Popular Front posturings of CAMRA, and give an accurate record of the campaigns evolution. You need someone who doesn’t use words and phrases like ‘squabbles’ and ‘Judean People’s Popular Front’. I’m sure there will be some who feel their particular point of view on the use of gas dispense or BrewDog’s Portman Group battles haven’t been given enough room, but no one on any side of the debate can go so far as to be upset by such a clear-eyed and dispassionate account of controversial and often confusing subjects.

What stops the detachment becoming boring is the all-important contextualisation. Having just learned about Ian Nairn and hisideas of ‘Subtopia’ though an event at our recent literary festival, it was fascinating to see how his ideas extended to beer – a passion that became his eventual undoing. We learn that it was an appreciation of wine that eventually led Sean Franklin to brew with cascade hops, that the Firkin chain – which had an incredible influence before it was bought and cheapened into oblivion – was originally a product of one man’s intuition and creativity. And that possibly the most brilliant craft brewer you’ve never heard of (if you’re under fifty) is now revolutionising the principles of banana growing – in Ireland.

Some writers who were quicker than me at reading and reviewing this book have commented that it goes downhill at the end – that the account of the last decade or so feels a little rushed and scrappy. Zak suggested it’s perhaps too soon to analyse what’s just happened with the same insight as things that happened twenty or thirty years ago. The last few chapters do read more like blog posts from the end of 2013 rather than a complete account of trends. But that’s OK too: the story is open-ended. It hasn’t finished yet. Interestingly, many of my beloved music books – including How Soon is Now – neatly avoid this problem by telling the story from one date to another, flagging up an artificial cut-off point after which the protagonists don’t necessarily live happily ever after, and the struggle continues. I really don’t think that was an option here for a book that was published as the story it tells is yet to reach its dramatic peak. 

If I had written my version of this story it would have been bloodier and more chaotic than this one: more evangelical, more critical, more involved. I’d have made a lot more of the indie music analogy, and gone Big Picture to the point of wilful digression.

Which is why I’m glad Boak and Bailey got there first and did it their way. We need this account, in this form, if we are to fully understand where beer is today, how it got here, and from there, to start to speculate about where it might go next.

While they were pitching this book to publishers, Boak and Bailey wrote a review of Shakespeare’s Local in which they kindly said I was a ‘writer [publishers] think has really nailed it in commercial terms’ when it comes to beer books. Here I can return the compliment by saying this is a book that I wish I had written, but was beaten to it by people who have done a better job than I would have.                                                               

Monday, 7 July 2014

Crap Beer - it's the future

Friday, late afternoon. Stranded in Chesterfield waiting for The Beer Widow, who is attempting to come up the M1 from London to meet me before we go on to the Great Peak Weekender at Thornbridge. The journey will eventually take her seven hours (it should take no more than three), so sitting in Chesterfield station's dispiriting concourse isn't an option. 

I follow signs to the town centre and walk for about ten minutes without seeing a single shop, pub, restaurant or commercial premises of any description. I'm dragging a suitcase. It starts to rain, hard, and I'm getting desperate. There is no one on the streets: it's like 28 Days Later, only less pleasant.

Eventually a find a pub. In the window it advertises a 'wide range of cask ales'. I smile to myself and go in. On the bar there are just two handpumps: one serving Doom Bar, the other Greene King IPA. But there's a half pint glass over the GK pump, so my 'wide range' consists of Doom Bar. As I occasionally do at times like this, I order a pint of Kronenbourg. It's utterly undrinkable, so I drag my suitcase back into the rain.

A little further down the street, I spy a Marston's logo outside another pub, the Crooked Spire. Oh well, a pint of Pedigree will do. I walk in. Once again, there are just two handpumps on the bar. They look like they haven't been used for some time. It's not that the pumpclips are turned around: there are no pumpclips at all. The keg fonts are Budweiser, Becks Vier, Strongbow.

"Do you have any cask ale?" I ask.

"No," replies the barman. 

"Do you have any Marston's beers at all?" I follow up.

He just shakes his head. 

For only the second time in recent memory, I say apologetically that I'll have to try somewhere else because there's nothing on the bar I want to drink.

I walk a little further, starting to feel desperate, and finally I find the Blue Bell, advertising not just cask ales, but also craft beers on a permanent sign just outside the door. Relieved, I go inside.


The whole pub stinks of BO. Undeterred, I walk to the bar. Here is the standard selection of two handpumps: this time Hobgoblin and Jenning's Cumberland Ale. The weighty pump clips suggest they are permanent and unchanging. I look along the bar for the craft keg fonts. Finding none, I scan the fridges, but there's only Bud, Becks, Bulmer's and Koppaberg.

"Are you looking for anything in particular?" asks the very friendly barmaid.

"There’s a sign outside saying you sell craft beer," I reply.

She looks confused. "Sorry?"

"Craft Beer?"

"What? CRAP beer?"

"No, CRAFT beer."

"Oh. What’s that?"

"There’s a sign by the door saying you sell it."

"I’m sorry love, I don't even know what craft beer is. I've never heard of it."

"I think they mean that," says one of the regulars at the bar, pointing to the Hobgoblin. 

But that would come under cask ale. They say they sell both craft beer and cask ale outside, I want to say. But I'm too confused. Could it be that someone who works here has never read the signage outside the front door? And why is it there anyway? 

"I'll have a pint of Kronenbourg thanks."

*

Over an excellent weekend at Thornbridge, I'm informed by many people that Chesterfield has some brilliant pubs selling a fantastic range of beers. I have absolutely no reason to doubt them. I just managed to pick a very unlucky route through the town centre.

On our way back home on Sunday, we decide to try again, and find a nice country pub on the outskirts of the city that advertises food served from 12 noon to 3.30pm. It's now 2.30pm. The pub is about half full - certainly not busy.

"I'm sorry, we've run out of food," says the bar person.

"What, no food left at all?"

"No, absolutely none." 

Some pubs simply don't deserve to stay in business. And I really need to get my pub radar fixed.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Why Farage's foaming pint is a testament to European integration and immigration

Thanks to an amazing Stoke Newington Literary Festival I haven't had time to blog for about a month, which means I missed my chance to comment on the biggest visibility beer has had in national media for ages. 

What a shame it had to be under such circumstances.

Over the European elections last month, beer geeks across the country gloated at the seemingly daily photoshoots of everyone's favourite bigoted former stockbroker hoisting a pint of cask ale, because most of the time, Ukip's leader seemed to opt for a pint of Greene King IPA. I can't imagine there were too many happy executives in Bury St Edmunds each time Farage's gloating, froglike face appeared with their distinctive branded glassware.


Of course, it was perfect stage management by this most politically astute and media-savvy party leader. Nothing is more iconic of Britain than a foaming pint of real ale. And Greene King IPA initially seems like the perfect choice. Loathed by the trendy craft beer-drinking liberal London media elite, it was until recently the best-selling cask ale in Britain, the drink of the common man Farage pretends to be. 

But how this pint came to be in Farage's hands is in fact a brilliant case study of the benefits of immigration and European integration - the very things Farage campaigns against so fiercely.

Hopped beers first became popular in England in the fifteenth century, when they were imported into East Anglia (Greene King's home) from Holland and Zeeland. The first recorded imports were for Dutch workers who weren't great fans of sweet, Old English ale. (While hops were among a range of other flavourings used in beer from at least the 8th century, they start being mentioned with increasing regularity from the early fifteenth century). Their tastes soon caught on with the English. Over the next century, immigrants from Holland and Zeeland settled in England and began brewing hopped beer that was so good it was exported back to the continent.

By the seventeenth century there was a thriving hop industry across the Weald of Kent. This was established by refugees from the Low Countries, fleeing religious persecution. Hop farms went on to become a defining feature of Kent - which is part of Farage's constituency as an MEP - thanks entirely to European immigrants.

Flemish brewers also settled in Southwark. Excluded from the City of London by the powerful trades guilds, they set up business just outside the city walls and soon became celebrated for the quality of their beer. There were of course those who opposed this trend, and some of the protests against these brewers strayed into xenophobia. While the story of Henry VIII banning hops is a myth, their cultivation was banned in Norwich in 1471, in Shrewsbury in 1519 and Leicester in 1523. London's ale brewers harassed and disparaged the immigrants they felt were coming over here and taking their jobs, which led to a writ being issued to the Sheriffs of London to proclaim that:

"All brewers of beer should continue their art in spite of malevolent attempts made to prevent natives of Holland and Zeeland and others from making beer, on the grounds that is was poisonous and not fit to drink and caused drunkenness, whereas it is a wholesome drink, especially in summer."

The descendants of these brewers eventually made Southwark one of Europe's great brewing centres, and hopped beer gradually replaced unhopped sweet English ale. 

While we're talking about hops, the varieties we have today is another direct result of international cooperation and trade. Hops are creatures of climate, and change their character entirely if grown in a different terroir. While Greene King IPA uses English Challenger and First Gold hops, other Greene King beers use hops grown in Slovenia. Hops such as Styrian Golding and Aurora are the descendants of hops that emigrated there from the UK in the mid-nineteenth century. These delicate plants grow better in the microclimate of the Savinja valley, which is broadly similar to souther England but more stable and protected from damaging winds and storms.

At the same time as English hops were venturing abroad, foreigners were coming to Britain to help improve the quality of our beer. Louis Pasteur's pioneering work with yeast finally solved the great mystery of how fermentation happened. He introduced the microscope (invented by Dutchmen) to British brewers for the first time, showing Whitbread and others how to analyse and understand the behaviour of yeast. A decade later Emil Hansen - a Dane - successfully isolated the first single cell yeast strains that allow brewers to brew consistent beer. 

These innovations helped create 'running beer' in the 1870s. Before we understood how fermentation worked, beer brewed in warm weather would spoil thanks to infection. Old beer styles such as porter and IPA would be brewed only in winter months, and were brewed strong enough to store and mature in cool cellars. Some of these 'stock ales' would then be blended with fresh beer before serving. But once we understood how yeast worked, and how to control it via temperature (using the scale developed by the Swede Anders Celsius, or perhaps the German Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit) we could brew beer all year round and serve it fresh from the cask, without long periods of storage. These 'running beers' essentially form the origin of modern cask ale.

Throughout this entire period - the golden age of brewing science - it was customary for brewers to undertake study tours around the great breweries of Europe to compare notes. While the work of French and Danish brewing scientists with yeast helped lead to the creation of real ale, English pale malt expertise influenced the development of golden pilsner lager. Carl Jacobsen of Carlsberg studied at Everard's Brewery in Burton on Trent. Pilsner was born of a combination of Czech ingredients and German skill. Burton on Trent would never have become the home of brewing that gave us IPA if it were not for a previous strong relationship with the Baltic states.

Like so many of our national icons, the British cask ale is the child of immigration and European integration. The first recorded fish and chip shop was opened by a Jewish immigrant in 1860. The Great British cuppa comes from India. The designer of the Mini was a Greek immigrant. Buckingham Palace was originally built for Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz - the German wife of George III. The famous clock and dials of Big Ben were designed by the son of a French draughtsman who fled to England during the Revolution.

And as for Nigel's favourite brand, Greene King? 

Whether you like Greene Kings beers or not, the business has prospered under the leadership of current MD Rooney Anand, who took the reins in 2005. Rooney was born in Delhi and arrived here as an immigrant with his parents at the age of two.

Sorry Nige - the closer you look, the more you realise your German wife is merely the most obvious example of how all you hold dear is founded on the things you hate: on tolerance and understanding, on the movement of people, ideas and influences around Europe, on Britain welcoming immigrants in, allowing them to shine, and watching as they help define our country with us.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

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.

Monday, 26 May 2014

Shiny shiny cider shiny

Look at the shiny. Go on, look at it. 
I think I may just about be recovering from a two-week long hangover. That's the only reason I can think of why I haven't written this blog before now.

On Tuesday 13th May, my compadre Bill Bradshaw and I were named winners of the Drink Book of the Year at the Fortnum & Mason Food and Drink Awards, for our book World's Best Cider.

This is a deeply gratifying award to win. For one thing, it's very heavy and shiny. Judged purely in terms of melted down scrap value, it's worth more than my six Guild of Beer Writers Awards tankards put together. It works far better than those awards as a doorstop. On the downside, it's not nearly as good as those tankards for drinking warm Efes out of in a kebab shop at 3am as you try in vain to keep the post-award party vibe going. 

What was even more gratifying was that this is, as the name suggests, an award that judges books on all types of drink. We were in a shortlist of three, up against a book about wine and a book about champagne. Every single judge on the panel from the drinks world was a wine writer. And when we stepped onto the fourth floor of Fortnum and Mason for the drinks and canapé reception, the only drinks being served were champagne and rosé wine. 

After a couple of remarks that could have been interpreted as hints by an optimistic dreamer, and one too many phone calls from the organisers just checking that we were both definitely coming, I'd started to get my hopes up. But as I took my glass of rosé across a jungle-thick carpet to admire flower arrangements that probably cost more than my house, I thought, 'Under this brand, in this place, there is absolutely no way a book on cider is going to beat a book about wine or a book about champagne. No way.'

But we did. And we were quite happy about it.

Playing it cool for the cameras.
Apart from succeeding in a much broader (and posher) arena than I'm used to, what was so gratifying was the reaction from judges I had very, very wrongly assumed would be sniffy about our subject. I still occasionally bump into people who think the idea of writing about beer is humorously absurd. Not as much as I used to. But for many, the idea of a serious book on cider is laughable. 

Not so for chefs, food writers and wine writers. 

I won't repeat the best complements we had (unless you ask me in the pub) because this would be an insufferably smug blog entry if I did. Safe to say people who write about other drinks and get much more attention for them are genuinely excited about cider and its potential to be explored in more detail.

Following the ceremony we were ushered to the basement bar in Fortnum's for the after-party. Now, I've been to a great many beer events. I've seen people get pissed at parties. I thought beer writers, brewers and publicans could really put it away. But nothing I've seen in a decade in the beer world prepared me for the sheer almighty CARNAGE that happens when the broader food and drink industry gets together to party. Perhaps it's because champagne gets you pissed quicker. Maybe it's because the only food on offer did a far better job of looking beautiful than of filling you up. But I have never seen so many people get so drunk, so quickly, in one space.

At one point Stephen Fry popped in for what I'm guessing was a quiet drink. His face registered surprise at seeing us all there, briefly, before being torn apart by sotted chefs and fucked-up food writers clawing at him for selfies. He held his ground and chatted like a hero for as long as he could stand, and was then literally chased out of the building by several people who had been waiting their turn when he decided to flee. 

The Hairy Bikers - also winners on the night - stuck it out with us. Dave Myers has read my books and says he likes them so this didn't feel too much of an imposition:

L-R: Hairy Pedestrian, Hairy Biker, unhairy publisher who believed in the cider book and made it happen 
The bar stocked one beer - Meantime Lager - and no ciders. None at all. There's still a lot of work to do to get people to reconsider good quality cider and take it seriously outside its current niche. But this night felt like a start. I'll be suggesting a few brands to Fortnum's that they might want to stock now this has happened. We're talking to another TV chef about ideas around cider. It feels like things might happen, and if feels like there's a broader appetite to learn more about this misunderstood drink.

Thank you so much to Jo Copestick (above with Dave) who has been hassling me to work on a book with her for years and guided us into shaping the book that needed to be written about cider even when we wanted to write a different one. And thanks to everyone else at Jacqui Small Publishing who made it happen. And thanks to my co-conspirator, who emailed me out of the blue one day, never having met me, and informed me that we needed to work on a book together. Turns out the mad scrumpy-necking bastard was right.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

With great beer comes great responsibility

I didn't want to write this post, but I have to.

It comes on the back of me breaking my own cardinal rule about not behaving like a dick at the bar.

In a version of that classic "Do you know who I am?" thing that spoilt celebs do, there are often times when I'm tempted to counter claims of "There's nothing wrong with that pint" or "Well, no one else has complained" by pointing out that I know the brewer of said beer, have judged it competitions, written tasting notes for it, perhaps even helped brew it myself. It's a horrible situation where even though I might be right, I would still be an insufferable, pompous prick for pulling rank in this way. So I have always resisted the urge.

Until last week.

I was staying in a hotel in Bristol. The Bristol Hotel in fact. I went into the bar and was utterly blown away by the range of beers on offer. Not the widest or best range of beers I've seen by a long way, but certainly among the very best I've ever seen in a British hotel bar, where usually it's a choice of Stella, Becks Vier and Boddington's on tap. This place has Freedom as its pouring lager, a couple of decent craft keg ales, and a wide range of bottled beers from Bristol Beer Factory.

I ordered a bottle of BBF's excellent Southville Hop. The barmaid began pouring it into a branded glass. 'This is excellent,' I thought.

Then, halfway down, she swirled the bottle to agitate the yeast, and poured me a cloudy beer with bits in it.

"What are you doing?" I asked.

"That's how it's supposed to be poured," she replied.

"No it isn't, can I have another one where you don't do that?" I asked.

She referred me to the duty manager, who looked far too young to be out this late.

"It's meant to be poured like that," he said. "We've been trained."

I spotted bottles of Bristol's Hefeweizen in the fridge, and understanding dawned.

"Ah, no," I said, "They probably showed you how to pour the Hefe with a swirl, to agitate the yeast - it's a tradition for that style. But you don't do it with an IPA."

"Look," he said angrily, "I've done a training course with the brewery. And I'm telling you that's how you pour this beer!"

And that's when I cracked.

"No, you look," I replied, "I'm one of the UK's leading beer writers. I've written a whole book about IPA. And I'm doing an event with the brewer of this beer tomorrow. And I'M telling YOU that it's not poured this way."

Rhetorically, I had won the argument. But not really. The barchild had proven himself to be a twat. I had proven myself to be a bigger twat. There were no winners. So I ordered a pint of lager instead, which thankfully came without bits in.

There are of course debates to be had about the desirability of swirling yeast in a bottle conditioned beer. Coopers Sparkling Ale use this as their serving gimmick. (I did check with Bristol Beer Factory, and they don't.) But in any case, with any beer, the accepted norm in the UK is to try to pour a bottle conditioned beer without the yeast. And if you DO want the yeast, that is a matter of personal choice. This is why most good bar staff leave it to the customer to pour their own bottled beer as they see fit.

I still think it's wonderful that the Bristol Hotel stocks such excellent beers. And I think it's amazing that the brewery offers training to bar staff. But here was a classic example of a little bit of training having the opposite effect to that intended.

The downside of the craft beer revolution is that such hazards are commonplace. I hear stories of brewers trying their own beer in craft beer bars, taking it back because it's cloudy, and being informed that the beer is unfiltered and is meant to be served that way. If the brewer wants to explain that he created the beer, and that he goes to great lengths to have the beer served sparkling clear, he's running the risk of emulating my twattish behaviour.

Recently I was served a pint of porridge in a local Cask Marque accredited pub. When I took it back, the barman poured another pint from the same tap, the same barrel, and said, "No look, this one's the same. It's meant to be like that." I've almost stopped drinking cask in London craft beer pubs, because so many seem to think that it's OK to serve a beer as soon as it's dropped clear. They proudly tell you "This one only came in this morning!"which I find confusing given that every single piece of cask ale cellar advice I've ever seen insists the beer should condition for three days in the cellar before it's ready to serve. Of course, this varies from beer to beer. But hop-forward cask beers in particular have a jagged, pixellated flavour when they have not been given time to condition.

Then there are the bars and pubs with six handpulls, all of them with pump clips turned backwards, because on a busy shift where a lot of beer is being drunk, there's not a single member of staff on the premises who knows how to change a cask.

The situation is often little better with craft keg: beers pour cloudy, flat and lifeless, and because it's 'craft', most bartenders and drinkers, for whim this is a new experience, assume it's meant to be like that.

At six quid a pint, this simply won't do.

Sometimes a lackadaisical approach to beer quality is born of simple greed and cynicism. America may be the home of late stage consumer capitalism, but over there, there is at least a belief in the value of capitalism, and pride in a job done well.  Other European countries are less aggressively capitalist than us. We seem to have this uniquely British combination of belief in the primacy of profit, but a cold cynicism of achieving it by any means necessary, preferably not involving genuine hard work.

In other pubs, intentions are good and honest, but the sheer hard work of trying to stay afloat as a pub means that training in speciality beer styles and optimal serves is simply too difficult to achieve.

Either way, it's just not good enough.

Craft beer, whether it's in bottle, keg or cask, is capable of saving pubs and making them profitable. It sells at a price premium. It justifies that premium because it is better beer. Because it is better beer, it deserves to be kept properly. If you cannot serve it properly, you should not be selling it - and you certainly shouldn't be selling it at a premium.

It's a simple as that.

If you think you can't train your staff, or it's not worth doing so because they move on quickly, then consider that staff who have better training have better job satisfaction, and stick around longer. If it means you have to pay then more, then do so - you're asking them to do a more specialised job than their counterparts in a bog standard pub selling Fosters and John Smith's Smoothflow, and your prices already reflect this.

If you went to a fine restaurant and your sommelier was a nineteen year-old who knew nothing about wine, poured your bottle of Margaux badly and didn't offer you a taste first, you'd be appalled. But we still accept similar standards in bars that boast of being beer specialists, that have accreditation and even awards saying they are.

Any fool can phone up James Clay and ask for a selection of interesting beers. That doesn't make you a great beer bar. If you want to be known for great beer, you have to go further than the average pub and take some pride in how the beer is kept and served. If you don't, then as the price of a pint of craft beer increasingly takes the piss, the bubble will very quickly burst.

With great beer comes great responsibility: if you can't look after it properly, if you're not prepared to learn how it should be served, then don't fucking stock it. You haven't earned the right.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Why do trumpets taste like hops?

Five years ago I read an article about a study at Heriot Watt university that had found different styles of music could 'improve' the flavour of wine. In a controlled experiment, wines paired with the 'right' style of music tasted 40-60% better than those paired with the 'wrong' style.

Obviously I stole the idea and applied it to beer. There's a broader range of styles and flavours to play with, and music and beer as I know them go together much better than music does with wine - both have a communality and approachability to them, with the option of going for more obscure, difficult stuff if you prefer.

I started having fun matching things by theme, season and mood, but also terroir, attitude and a slight smidgeon of taking the piss.

Eventually though, I was put in touch with neuroscientists who showed me there's much more to it than that. Neuroscience in its current form has been around for less than twenty years, because contemporary brain imaging technology, which shows us what bits of the brain light up in response to different stimuli, is very new. Incredibly, in the 21st century we are only just starting to figure our how the brain really works. And we're learning that there's much more to our so-called 'five senses' than previously thought. They overlap, support each other, and sometimes become confused or blurred. Unwittingly, I'm conducting experiments that are not too dissimilar to what's happening in the new field of neurogastronomy, or would be if I conducted them more carefully and with less mucking about.

This has set me off on an exploration of the senses and how the brain works. I never did any science subjects at school or college after the age of fourteen, and now I'm learning to love the laboratory all over again, reading up on everything from soundwaves and molecular gastronomy to the philosophy of aesthetics and the 'Proustian effect' of sense memory.

My talk on beer and music is sprouting all sorts of new tentacles. I rewrite it after every single show, taking on board what I've learned, bolting on new experiments, refining the pairings, polishing up the presentation, ditching the bits that don't work. Having gone from ditching most of the show each time and starting from scratch, it's now starting to feel pretty solid.

I've no idea where this will end up - as a book, radio show or event at the Edinburgh Fringe (all have been suggested to me) - but right now it's becoming one of my core obsessions. At the heart of it are six pairings of great beers with music tracks that I love. They go together in different ways had tell us different things about how we perceive the world around us.

Some audience members think the whole thing is rubbish. Others find it seismic in changing their perceptions. Some cynics are won over; some enthusiasts go away confused and unsure. Whatever happens, and however much you buy the central conceit, it's an enjoyable hour of great beer and great tunes, with added science, anecdote and trivia.

I'm doing my next event at Bristol Food Connections on Friday 2nd May, in front of a very special audience which you can be part of. Tickets are still available and are only £5 including beers.

The following week I'm repeating the event in London, at the Ivy House. This pub hit the headlines a couple of years ago when it was seemingly doomed to closure, but was saved when the community bought it. It's now a thriving craft beer-focused pub with a legendary musical heritage. I'm honoured to be be matching beer and music there on 8th May. Tickets have just gone on sale here.

Please come along and help me create a beer tasting event quite unlike any you've witnessed before.