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.